Tag Archives: History

Passports

SAM_0515

My mama is here for one more day. She lives a long way away, and I have spent the past week and a bit talking her ear off. I am sat in the baby-and-toddler trenches with not much idea of what I’m doing, and not only has she been there twice as many times, she was there with me.

We have brainstormed toddler behaviour and baby feeding, the minutiae of my days and nights. Where I am, and where I want to be. Our mutual love of cheese and onion crisps, and the difficulty of eating them in public without seriously putting people off. The gaps in my childhood memories, and hers. I can’t stop asking questions; I can’t help it. It’s just that she always knows exactly what to say.

One of the things we talked about this week was her mother, my nanna. She died when I was eleven, so I can’t remember much. She was kind, and a stickler for good manners. She wore a red cardigan, and smelled like the cough sweets she kept by her bed. She fed us stew and dumplings every Sunday, and sneaked pink wafer biscuits and magazines into our bags after we’d taken her shopping. She paid for every pair of shoes we wore for a decade, sticking stamps into a savings book for months at a time. Piece by piece, week after week. One year I got the starry shoes with the keyhole in the heel. When I turned the key, a fairy picture appeared at the bottom of my shoe. I don’t know how many savings stamps my nanna collected so I could have them, or how long it took. They basically made my seven-year-old life, and I hope I said thank you.

Yesterday I found out that this old lady in her red cardigan was once a girl who went to join the British army. She was a sergeant and a cook. Women weren’t supposed to be on the front lines, but thanks to clerical oversight she ended up in Berlin with the Allies at the end of World War Two. It was rubble, only rubble. I wish I knew what she thought. Later she was sent to Belgium, to manage a factory that had ground to a halt during the war. One blueish day she was swimming in the sea, her husband on a deckchair on the beach, when everyone suddenly scarpered. She turned around in the water to find a German U-boat had popped up behind her, cool as you please. She climbed out of the water dripping in oil.

Later that day, we watched The King’s Speech. That scene where they all listen to Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war gets me every time: I think about how it must have been to hold your breath on the precipice of terrible change, not knowing how exactly how it would touch you but knowing it would all the same, and I go cold. Mum said ‘Nanna was listening to that, somewhere’, and I realised my twenty-five-year-old grandmother sat by a radio and went cold, too.

I’ve been looking over her passport today. Stamps for every country you can think of, and every one of them a story. Pieces and pieces of a girl who went to join the army, and cooked for soldiers in Berlin. I don’t know how it felt, making stew and dumplings with all of that in her drawer. I would give anything at all to get back to her armchair and ask her.

One day we’ll all be stories packed in drawers. I hope by then I’ve listened enough to remember them, and talked enough to pass them on.

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Something of a Lost Cause, I’m Afraid

I love history that’s so well-told it leads you on to hope for a different ending. Alison Weir is one of my favourite authors, because she’s a master at refashioning dry, historical fact into fallible, fascinating human activity. For history to matter it needs to live all over again in front of you. Reading Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, these long-dead Tudor royals drew me in with their messy, extravagant, emotional lives – intriguing both in their difference from me and in their recognisable human similarity. I spent a couple of days in knots about the net closing around Katharine of Aragon, and a few more days outraged and miserable when her fate was decided, but I hoped, too, that somehow the King’s mind would be changed, or someone would intervene to restore her to favour. Weir describes Anne Boleyn on Tower Green, looking back towards the palace for a last-minute reprieve, and I thought perhaps a messenger would arrive after all. And then I remembered that this is history, not an invention, and these events weren’t alterable in the slightest by my wishing or by Weir’s telling.

The same went for Jane Campion’s beautiful film about John Keats’ love affair with Fanny Brawne, Bright Star. A rather melodramatic, intense love affair it may have been (he was a twenty-five-year-old Romantic poet with consumption, for heaven’s sake: I think melodrama was a given) but the film itself is quiet and unshowy, letting the story unspool itself without any unnecessary flourishes or intrusive soundtrack. The gorgeous landscape speaks for itself too: there’s an awe-inspiring scene where Fanny (Abbie Cornish) reads a letter in a field of blue flowers that made me want to pause the film to stare and keep staring. And the closing credit sequence, as Ben Whishaw recites the Ode to a Nightingale over a lilting male voice choir, is so captivating I felt there was not room in my head to take in its loveliness. So when Keats dies (off-screen, which is typical of the film’s restraint), and Fanny receives the news and sobs, I sobbed too: angrily, with a fresh raw sense of betrayal that he should have died with such greatness in him, and when they could have been happy together. Silly, really, because pretty much anything to do with Keats’ life was over and done with quite a while ago, and he probably doesn’t mind the dying much now anyway, so what on earth was I crying for. Ah, but it’s all in the telling. Let historians (and directors of period films, of which there are many, and not all of them as good as Campion (Lark Rise to Candleford, I’m looking at you)) take note.

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