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
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!