Friday, 11 October 2013

Memory as Rescue Dig - Cathy Butler

1985 is history. It’s almost thirty years ago, for goodness’ sake – hardly anyone alive today was even born then.

It was in that long-ago year that the children’s writer Robert Westall, who had made his name a decade earlier with his novel The Machine-Gunners, published Children of the Blitz. Children of the Blitz was a collection of memories, the voices of Westall’s contemporaries who (like him) had been children during World War II. As Westall saw it, that generation was already dying out, and with it their memories of what had been the most dramatic years of many of their lives. He described the book as “a hurried, scattered rescue dig”, to preserve those memories for posterity.

It’s twenty-eight years later now, and Westall himself has been dead for twenty of them. My mother, five years older than him, had her 89th birthday a couple of days ago. She’s in good health considering, and her mind is sharp as a bodkin; but 89, as she is well aware, is a fair old age.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to her talk about her memories from the 1940s and before, though she’s tended to be a little reticent about them. “Young people’s eyes glaze over when I mention the War,” she told me a while ago. “Mine don’t glaze over!” I replied. “They light up!” I try to speak with her about those times, for a little while at least, whenever I see her – my own rescue dig, I suppose. Many of the things she remembers are the stuff of public history: doodlebugs, V2s, Myra Hess giving recitals at the National Gallery. Have you seen the pictures of the crowds outside Buckingham Palace on VE day? One of those faces is my mother’s.

But I like better still the glimpses that I could find nowhere else. Like being a young child in Wrexham some time in the late 1920s, and seeing the lamplighter come down the road with his long pole. Or the little hiding place beneath the floorboards of the kitchen, nicknamed Togoland by her brother and sister. Sitting on back of her father’s Shire horse (he was a haulier at the time) and doing the splits. Or the way that nature came to take over the bombsites in London during the War, so that a woman accosted her in the street, exclaiming, “Willowherb in Bloomsbury – imagine!”

There are more rounded anecdotes, too, of course – lots of them, and many brought to a high polish through years of handling. (For example, there was the time she sent a friend who worked in the Palace a risqué poem about the Virgin Sturgeon only to have it intercepted by Princess Elizabeth, with the hilarious result that – ah, but we would be here all day...) But I value just as much the things that are fragmentary, more like memories themselves, in all their ephemerality and miraculous survival. They don’t just give insight into history, they become part of one’s own experience, to the point where I may even forget what happened to whom.

That doesn't happen with my mother alone. One of my earliest memories is of watching my great-aunt on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, jumping up and down on the bed, her long red hair braided with sunlight, crying, “I’ve got the key of the door!” Of course, that memory is not mine directly. It was my grandmother’s first – who died before I was born – and she passed it to my father, who handed it on down. I treasure it just as I would any other heirloom. It’s of no great value or interest to anyone else, perhaps, but precious to me. It’s history; it happened today.

Happy Birthday, Great-Aunt Suzie. Have a good 1901.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Cathy!

Lynn said...

This is just lovely! Poignant and lovely. Thank you.

And I wanted to let you know that I very much enjoyed my copy of Twister Winter!

Lynn said...

*erm*...make that Twisted Winter.

Catherine Butler said...

Thanks, Joan and Lynn. I rather like Twister Winter!

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely - but now I want to know about Princess Elizabeth and the letter!

Catherine Butler said...

Ah, that's between me, my mother and the Official Secrets Act!