Issue 34

October 2009

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Writing Family History

A PERSONAL ACCOUNT BY M.M.MACARTHUR

 

Joining the U3A Writing Family History Group in 2008 was based on a total misconception. I anticipated stories of Georgian millowners and Victorian bankers. Instead I have had to dig back into my childhood memories of 1940's Glasgow and the West Coast of Scotland.

 

My wife and I had been researching into her ancestors for some years, ever since we found a diary written in 1845-57 by her great-grandfather. We had accumulated large amounts of family history, much of which was still in our working notebooks, and there were shelves of box files with photographs, maps and certificates and even a set of engineering drawings for a steam engine bought for the family cotton mill in 1795. We felt we needed advice on arranging all this in an accessible form which our children and grandchildren might be persuaded to read - and we hoped that being involved in the group might help us.

 

In the event, once the real nature of the group emerged, I found my experience of World War II, with bombing and evacuation, gas masks, rationing and propaganda, news of battles won and of battles lost with often hundreds of casualties, provide valuable raw material - and equally my memories of family and school life, of life on the streets of Glasgow and in a West of Scotland fishing village, have highlighted how far society has moved since those days. My life, I now realise, is history.

 

I enjoy working in the group. Our leader, Angela, has kept it informal and supportive. The different backgrounds of the group's members is a major advantage. We share memories of Scotland and Yorkshire, London and Malaya, of village schools and boarding schools, of abundance and meagre sustenance, of town-dwelling and country-living. Sharing cross-fertilises the group's individual memories, incidents described by one member resurrecting similar memories for another. Descriptions of various life-styles have enriched our perception of society.

 

Discipline is needed to produce a written input for each meeting. It is not merely the need to set aside time. Childhood memories, the raw materials, are often fragmentary. We recall incidents and experiences, but with no clear context. Without a diary, time distorts; experiences which, logically, can have lasted only days or weeks seem to have occupied a large part of our life while unremarkable periods are blanked out. Unworthy actions and emotional trauma may have to be acknowledged and then discarded or disguised behind a screen of humorous trivia. Even the need to present a coherent statement can introduce distortions. But, if you can produce an account of some part of you life which you feel is reasonably accurate and honest, you are rewarded by a sense of achievement and satisfaction.

 

There has been one unexpected bonus from the year's activity. Relatives and offspring who previously reacted to any mention of family history with overt boredom, have successively asked to have sight of these accounts of my early life. Initially it seemed to be curiosity, "What could Grandad possibly find to write about?" But latterly it is obvious that they feel that bits are worth reading. They may still display no interest in family bankruptcy in 1798 or whether the ghost of Hunt's Mill could be Great-Great-Grandmother from 1850 — but Grandad's accounts of his wartime experiences and of his boyhood, in a house with neither running water nor electricity, but with freedom to roam the lanes, fields and wild hills of Argyll, to beachcomb for the flotsam of war, and to beg rides on haycarts and fishing boats, seem to fascinate!

 

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