Photo Book Spotlight: ‘Made in Paddington’
“I’m not a professional author, this is just pure fun. It’s a tribute to my grandmother and my grandfather. It’s a love story… it’s a rather lovely love story.”
It never ceases to amaze us how much heart our customers pour into their photo books, and Christopher Muttukumaru is no exception. A London-based retired barrister with a longstanding interest in photography, his book caught our attention with its unusual use of heirloom family photographs.
‘Made in Paddington’ is the fusion of family history, social history and love story. The subjects are Christopher’s maternal grandparents who, back in 1922, defied social conventions with their marriage that straddled barriers of both race and class.
We meet Christopher in London, and somehow a casual conversation about photography and family history shifts into discussing the fragility of living memory, and the invaluable importance of capturing details while you can.
“Most of the old photographs in this book belong to my mother,” Christopher tells us of his book, which is dedicated to her, “I’ve taken photographs of her photographs, and expanded her stories.
‘It started back when I was visiting her one year, probably in 2013 or 2014, I pulled out a lot of her old photo albums. They seemed interesting, so I asked my mother if she could tell me some of the stories behind the photographs. Her powers of recall are extraordinary, especially if you put a picture in front of her. She’s 94, but like a lot of older people, she can vividly remember things from a long time ago. It was her memories that really brought the photographs to life.”
“I realised that when you look at a photo, there’s a bigger story behind each one. When you start to learn more about what happened to these people, these families, who they were and what they did… somehow it becomes a bit different. It feels important to learn about.”
It was these conversations with his mother that set Christopher on the path to creating his photo book. It sparked an interest in learning more about the people in the photographs, what their lives were like, and what kind of world they lived in.
In Christopher’s case, his grandparents’ story was an uncommon one. It’s the story of Molly, a Scottish woman from a very poor background, who made a new life for herself in London as a nursing sister. It’s also the story of Ratnarajah from Ceylon, a young doctor studying at St Mary’s hospital, who fell in love with her. He from a more wealthy background, and also South Asian, the match would have likely met some criticism from both sides.
“But love doesn’t know borders. So off Molly goes to Ceylon!”
As Christopher talks, the admiration he has for his grandmother is striking. Looking deeper into her life, he’s become acquainted with her younger self. It’s something that could apply to all of us; we meet our grandparents in their elderly years, slower and more settled. We never get to meet the young people in their 20s, who would sail across the world for love.
“I just think she’s really… the word we use now would be feisty! It’s a massive risk, moving across the world. Ratnarajah practiced for a short time in the East end of London, where they met. He went back to Ceylon first, then she followed him out about a year later. They met up in Colombo, hopped on a night mail train and got married the following day. It’s lovely!”
‘Made in Paddington’ is interesting not just as a recounting of family history, but because it also expands upon what the world was like at the time.
“I started by simply taking the pictures and putting them into a photo book, and then putting a narrative next to each picture. But I never submitted that one to be printed, because I realised a picture with a short caption was too narrow. It wasn’t telling you enough! It was a bit dull and boring.
‘The more the stories opened up, the more I also found myself very interested in the historical and social background. I’ve always known the basic story of how my grandparents met of course, but getting into the wider context behind every photograph lead to other historical narratives to focus on.”
Unfortunately, most of Christopher’s grandparents’ personal documents were destroyed in a fire years before. Without diaries and letters, there were gaps in the story that needed to be filled. The goal became research; to gain as much wider information as possible. Knowing that his grandparents met in London during the First World War, and that Ratnarajah had studied at St. Mary’s Hospital, Christopher’s first point of call was the St. Mary’s archives.
“I needed to know what St. Mary’s during the war was like. Then I hit on a bit of gold dust; the archivist told me that one of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren had been a nurse at St. Mary’s during the war. She’d worked as an ordinary nurse, and then wrote an autobiography of her time at St. Mary’s.”
“So I had only basic information about my grandfather, but then I find out someone else has written about the very time he was at the hospital. By reading Princess Arthur Connaught’s book, you can bring the hospital to life through her eyes. You can transplant my grandfather into the hospital and understand what he would have seen.”
This isn’t the only time Christopher uses first-hand accounts to describe specific locations and time periods. He also uses autobiographies from Leonard Woolf and Bella Woolf, who both wrote about Ceylon during the 1920s and 1930s, at the time when his grandparents lived there after getting married.
“From the age of about nine or ten, I have my mother’s memory to rely on. But what about before then? Where I couldn’t fill in a story with living memory, I could use original material that told about the country during that time. I needed to know; what were my grandparents’ seeing?”
‘Made in Paddington’ is a testament to how a rich story can be excavated from limited information, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort. The bones of the book come from family stories, but it’s fleshed out using wider information from a huge range of sources. From searching UK census records, ships logs and reaching out to field experts for details and even images to use in his book.
“They had lots of pictures of these ships that they travelled backwards and forwards on,” Christopher explains, as he shows us some photographs of his grandparents stood aboard a deck, “the ships belonged to The King’s Rotterdam Line. I did some research and discovered that not only does The King’s Rotterdam Line still exist, but they have a KRL Museum.
‘I wondered if I could find out a bit more about the ships. By return of email, I got a message from Ed Van Lierde, and he was very excited to be contacted about the ships my grandparents used to travel back and forth on. Of course I had my grandparents’ pictures, but those photos can’t show the whole boat – because they’re standing on it! So he gave me these pictures of the boats to use in my book.”
The cooperation of the KRL Museum also helped Christopher bring more of his mother’s memories to life.
“My mother told me that on the boats there used to be a man who would come along and play a gong to let you know when it was lunch time or dinner time. I mentioned it to Mr Van Lierde, and he said ‘Oh yes, that was Djongos’ – and he sent me a photograph of Djongos and the gong! As well as a recording of the gong to listen to. It’s extraordinary what you can find.”
Christopher’s photo book is sprinkled with similar little details, just like Djongos and his gong. There are photographs of family friends at the seaside in the 1930s, there are stories of Ratnarajah’s cricket matches, there are anecdotes about Molly riding a bull cart to get to a church in Talawila. These kinds of details wouldn’t make it into a history book, but add a rich layer of context to the story, that tell more about the experiences of the people who lived before, and all the other lives they intersected with.
“You’re getting a glimpse into a world that’s gone.”
Christopher is understandably proud of his photo book – after all, it’s taken a lot of research, time and effort to create. But it’s the dedication to preserving these memories, these stories, and these people that’s driven him to devote so much energy to it.
“This is for the children – not just my own, but my brothers’ children too. All of these kids will know the earlier generation better. They’ll know there was a Ratnarajah who loved cricket, they’ll know there was a feisty Scotswoman who went off and got married in Ceylon. If nobody bothers to write it down, this is all going to be lost to these kids.
‘I’ve taken it a step further to use the CEWE software to record it with. If you’ve got pictures, if you’ve got documents, and you’ve got the software, you can make it look quite professional. Even if it’s just to keep for yourself! You can put it all together in a way that is permanent. And the joy of computer technology is that you can add to it or subtract from it, move things around and delete pictures you don’t want. This is a mix of old pictures, old documents, a few of my own photographs that are relevant to the story.”
We talk about how these tiny moments from his mother’s memory and a handful of photographs were enough to spark interest and build this whole complex narrative with interweaving storylines. While his own grandparents’ story might be an uncommon one, Christopher is convinced that anyone can find exciting details and fascinating people in their own family history.
“My advice for other people would be to start with what you’ve already got – maybe you have photographs, maybe your grandfather or grandmother can fill in the details. Or you may have records, you may have letters. I would say you should look around to see if you can find more. You might be able to find local authority information, or parish records. My own view is that you have to follow the trail as far as it will go! Contact historians and experts. Have the imagination to ask more questions, analyse broader information, follow all the leads.
‘For somebody who’s interested in both photography and history, your software is the perfect way to record all of this. So that our children will know how it all came to pass, and where they came from – so it’s not all lost.”