For me history’s appeal doesn’t lie in the grand sweep of events. I’m not particularly interested in kings and politicians, or empires rising and falling. It’s the small things, the ordinary people living through extraordinary events, the humdrum details of their daily lives that I find fascinating. I suppose that my interest in history really began at home.
My mother (now in her seventies) recently went to see a concert - a ‘work in progress’ – on the theme of the First World War. Afterwards the audience were invited to send in their own stories and experiences. This is what she wrote:
“My grandfather (John Edward Avery, pictured below) was a Cornish mining engineer, working in Johannesburg at the outbreak of the Boer War. He had many friends in South Africa of all cultures, whom he refused to fight.
He returned to Truro, where he made himself unpopular, declaring that the Boer War had been created by politicians and was being waged against defenceless women and children (thousands of them died of dysentery in our concentration camps).
My grandmother married Jack Avery in the peace after the Boer War. A tenant farmer’s daughter from Exmoor, she rode horses as she learned to walk, and when Jack took her out to South Africa she rode with him, side saddle, from Cape Town to Swaziland, a thousand miles or more. The railways had been destroyed in the Boer War. There were no roads. Later they returned to Cape Town with their four children in an ox wagon and took ship for their beloved West Country.
In 1914, as soon as war was declared, Jack Avery, this same man who had refused to fight in the Boer War, enlisted in the British army. Meeting his sister (my Great Aunt) coming down May Hill in Truro, he gave her the joyful news. Years later she told me she had been so angry she could barely speak beyond, “Jack how could you? You have a wife and four young children.”
“It’ll all be over by Christmas,” he jauntily replied.
What propaganda made a man of his mindset believe that?
He became the first man from Truro to die. His only son, my uncle John, went unscathed through the Second World War, only to die just before it ended. It was the only time I ever saw my stoic grandmother with tears in her eyes, her hands shaking so much she could not hold the cup of tea my mother made for her. “Everyone I love is taken from me,” she said. I must have been six-years-old and I can still see and hear those moments as if they were happening before me now. My grandmother and mother were typical of their generations. They lost fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.
I was grateful that you included material based on Vera Brittain’s writings but, with all due respect, Vera Brittain (bless her) was well educated, well off and at that time single and childless. The women in my mother’s and grandmother’s generations were very often fatherless, widowed, poorly educated, poor, and with big families. They were exhorted to ‘keep the home fires burning’. They did so. Who thanked them?”
I think one day, I might just try…