South Yorkshire author’s dark 100-year history inspired his latest novel.
George Lee eyeballs the camera, his face set in a determined grimace.
The grainy image, taken in 1920, shows Sheffield-born George dressed in a three-piece suit, having celebrated his 70th birthday with a 70-mile bike ride. Clearly George was no ordinary guy.
As his six-times great-grandson, Jonathan Lee, turns the black and white photograph over in his hands, he shows me the words inscribed on the back: ‘George the Dog Hanger.’
“Pretty creepy, huh?” smiles Jonathan as he looks back down at the photograph of his relative.
“The story goes that ol’ George was a real stickler for discipline. Unfortunately the family dog was quite disobedient, so he decided to string it up by its neck from a tree to teach it a lesson. The dog died of course. It’s a bit weird to think I share DNA with a guy like that!”
Mental health should not be taboo. It is a part of everyday life and our society would be healthier if we were more open.
Jonathan first came across the photograph two years ago, while going through the belongings of his late grandfather, who’d died 18 months earlier.
“You know how it is when your older relatives begin passing away, you suddenly get panicked that your family history will be lost,” says Jonathan.
“So I started collecting what I could and doing some research. This old photograph of ‘George the Dog Hanger’ was buried in a box of old pictures from the 1800s and it certainly piqued my interest.”
Luckily for Jonathan, his great uncle, aged 107, remembered the story of George well.
“I think it was told to the children in the family as a warning, if they didn’t behave,” laughs Jonathan.
“But it was what I discovered after I found the photograph that really made the whole thing spooky.”
As Jonathan continued to research his family tree, he discovered the each generation of his South Yorkshire family shared a terrible link. Each generation had one or more children that had died young, before their parents, and under tragic circumstances.
“My brother committed suicide in 2004,” says Jonathan, who lives in Barnsley with his wife and five children.
“My father’s sister died when she was just six, and as we went back through the records, every single generation told the same story. The pattern, eerily, stopped with George. That’s when the idea of a curse first began to form among my relatives, along with the idea that it was a punishment for George’s dog-hanging actions. My own children, and my nephew, are definitely a little freaked out that they could be next!”
Though Jonathan’s references to a curse within his own family are relatively light-hearted, the concept did set something off in the Barnsley author, and an idea for a book began to form. That book, Broken Branches – which is due out on July 27 – tells the story of a family curse and a doomed property that shares many similarities with Jonathan’s own family history.
“The book explores grief and the feeling of circular tragedy, represented in a curse,” says Jonathan, aged 43, who has previously written three other books.
And Jonathan is not unaccustomed to exploring strong emotions and dark issues in his books. His third novel, A Tiny Feeling of Fear, tells the story of Andrew Walker, a successful businessman who appears to be happy and well-adjusted, but whose private life is a mess behind closed doors.
“That book was inspired by my experiences of living with my brother’s illness for a number of years,” says Jonathan.
“It was the first time I’d touched on suicide in my writing, and it was just something I felt ready to work through. My brother Simon and I were the closest of friends.”
Simon was just 19 the first time he tried to take his own life, jumping from the top of a multi-storey car park in Barnsley town centre. He spent six months recovering in hospital.
Jonathan recalls: “There was no family discussion afterwards; no real acknowledgement of what had happened. It was referred to just as ‘the accident’ and we each – my parents, my sister and I – tried to deal with it in our own way.”
Thirteen years later, in 2004, Simon tried again. This time he succeeded. Jonathan returned from a weekend away to his home in Barnsley to find Simon had let himself in and hanged himself .
Jonathan, who was 30 at the time, said: “Simon was two years older than me and we were very close. It’s likely that he was bipolar but he never sought medical attention; even 10 years ago mental illness still carried a lot of stigma.
“Obviously it was a difficult time, but two months after he died, my girlfriend gave birth to our baby twins – there was no time to really deal with it, I was up to my elbows in changing nappies and sleepless nights.”
Jonathan believes that emotional suffering, when left unresolved, often drives people to find another outlet; in his case it was a creative outlet.
Jonathan explains: “I’ve found I’ve tackled quite a lot of demons and issues in my books in recent years, and that’s led me to work quite closely with the Doncaster mental health charity, Mind. I think too many people live like Andrew Walker, always putting on a brave face, working side by side with people for years without letting them see the real you.
“My brother had good times, when people couldn’t see the internal battle within him – he had friends, a job, he got married. But those who knew him best were always on red alert, because his ups were always followed by downs and he outright refused professional help.
“It was while I was away on holiday that he let himself into my house and took his life. At first, I was so angry with him, for doing that to me, for leaving me to find his body. But over the years the anger has gone and now I’m comforted to know that it was me he chose to come to, even at the end.”
And Jonathan himself is no stranger to mental health struggles, having lived with anxiety and depression for most of his life.
“I’m lucky to have my wife Nikki, who I’ve always been able to talk very openly with about how I’m feeling,” says Jonathan.
“Talking about our feelings is the only real way to deal with them, but people do not like to admit when they’re feeling depressed or wretched or anxious, and keeping things bottled up is what can lead to people getting driven to a situation, like my brother.
“I think writing my third book addressed a lot of issues for me, as well as helping my children – who never got to meet their uncle – to understand what happened,” he explains.
“Children have a questioning nature. I’ve had frank conversations and discussions with all my children about mental health and I’m keen to teach them the importance of talking openly. I don’t think enough people will hold their hands up and say ‘I’m like that, I’ve had those struggles.’
“Mental health should not be taboo. It is a part of everyday life, and our society would be healthier if we were more open about it.”
In the run-up to the release of Broken Branches this month, Jonathan will be at the Emmanuel Church in Barnsley next Monday evening, giving a talk, in partnership with the NHS and Mind, about mental health and how writing has assisted him in working through a number of his own issues.
“Oh I’ll definitely be telling them all about my family curse,” he smiles.
“A lot has changed since the days of George the Dog Hanger and it’s about time we realised that, as a society, we started breaking down barriers and talking to each other.”