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Monday 23 March 2009

My grandmother

Today is the anniversary of my grandmother's death. She was born in 1896 and lived to the age of 98 and, as a child, I was constantly fascinated by the stories of her childhood and youth. Since history - for me! - seems to stop in 1918, it was incredible to hear first hand accounts of life up to and through to the end of the First World War. She remembered, as a very young child, the soldiers coming home from the Boer War and - being a northern mill girl - said, "Old Jepson (or some similar name) putting a barrel of beer in the street and all the men had a gill for free." When she spoke of the First World War (in which her closest brother was killed on the Somme), her voice always dropped, almost to a whisper, and she had that misty look of someone seeing into a memory they do not care to share. Occasionally, she mentioned things like, "They buried all the bodies in mass graves, but you mustn't tell anyone this, it's a secret," seemingly unaware that what was one a matter of 'state secrets' was, by my time, common knowledge.
Having left school at the age of 13, she loved working in the mill - in many mills - and she loved the whole camaraderie of a world that was quite poor but had a real sense of community.
It was to me a remarkable thing to have been able to spend time listening to the stories of someone who lived at the same time as Queen Victoria, who was older than two of the Tsar's children, and who would have read day to day in the newspapers of the terrible events as they happened.
I think she came from a generation that was incredibly strong. Nowadays, when people go for counselling because a pop group splits up, or when children aren't allowed to play with conkers for fear they might damage their wrists, we seem to a nation of ninnies. A lot of unexpressed emotion went into making up those people of the past - and that wasn't a good thing - but they did have guts and strength of character which is so often lacking today.

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