My grandmother spent VE day, 75 years ago today, being sick on a coach. Her family and neighbours had decided to celebrate the end of five horrifying years of war by taking a special day out to a place she can’t recall. All the way there and all the way back she sat beside her mother fighting merciless car sickness. She was nine years old.
This wasn’t exactly the rose tinted nostalgia I expected as she reminisced on her experience of that historic day, but then again she has never been the sort to fit into a mould. While Britain’s collective memory leans on photos of jubilant children waving Union Jacks and soldiers kissing sweethearts outside Buckingham Palace, she has bestowed me with this rather less romantic account for my family archives.
My grandmother’s name was pulled from a hat by her older brother in July 1935. The choice was between Beryl or Mavis, and the latter was the lucky winner. She was a bright child, winning a place at the local grammar school at 11 and going on to claim the Maclean Vase at 15, a prize for the best level of work over three years. She still regales us with this honor even now, lest we forget her promising academia. Like many women of her era though it was more important to settle down and start a family than to pursue higher education, so four days after she turned 21 she married my grandfather. The pair met at a dance in December 1953 and apparently spent the whole night “smooching”.
My grandfather was a successful international cyclist, riding for Britain for many years, but even so, Nanny Mavis recounts his races as if she were the one in the saddle.
When I ask for stories from these halcyon days, it is always my grandmother who tells them. She is the gatekeeper of my maternal family history even extending to moments from my grandfather’s early youth. She recalls his stories with unflinching confidence despite not knowing him until he was 23. My grandfather was a successful international cyclist, riding for Britain for many years, but even so, Nanny Mavis recounts his races as if she were the one in the saddle.
I have inherited my grandmother’s weakness for telling both my own and other people’s stories and consider it an important exercise in oratory history. My genetics are soaked in decades of knowing it all, but what makes me stand apart from this lineage of raconteurs is that I have written everything down in a diary since the age of eight. It is one of my greatest dissatisfactions that the women in my family before me did not do the same so I could glimpse their worlds before my arrival.
What joy it would be to read their accounts of everyday life rather than relying on the stale, and usually male, history books. Did they experience an air raid siren? What fruit did they dream of beyond their ration cards? How did their generation respond when death was such an everyday reality? This fascination with the past has fuelled the past 20 years of documenting my own present life. In the future, when my own grandchildren ask about a particular time in history, these books will be my storyteller’s guide.
My grandchildren might read my diaries and scoff at the tiny domestic details, but without them their history cannot be truly understood.
On September 11th, I wrote that my mother had picked me up from school and told me two planes had crashed into office buildings in New York. In the same entry I wrote she had brought me a bagel with a bunch of grapes to eat on the way home. When it was announced that the UK would be leaving the European Union, my entry focused on the afternoon I had spent with colleagues drinking rosé in the South of France. It is these details that capture the truth of a moment in time. While my grandchildren might read these diaries and scoff at the tiny domestic details, without them their history cannot be truly understood.
When I read back my entries from the past six weeks of isolation, it is not political speeches or briefings from epidemiologists which fill the pages, just like my grandmother’s memory was not of the King’s speech or hanging bunting. Rather they consist of my father tripping over himself every Thursday evening at 8pm to go outside and clap for the NHS, the dissection of a family argument over a game of Trivial Pursuit (the board remains untouched one week later) and a description of two dozen roses which arrived on the morning of my birthday from an unknown sender.
The last 47 days have felt like a surreal social experiment, one that hopefully will never be repeated in my lifetime. Everything that has fuelled my modern adult life (expensive barista coffee, high street fashion, attachments to emotionally unavailable men) has evaporated and been replaced by the solid foundations of family dinners, walking outside and reading books in the garden. If I were to pick an overarching memory from this episode it would have nothing to do with the infectious disease. As my diary would testify, my life, albeit luckily, has gone on regardless.
At first it seemed bizarre my grandmother had such a peculiar memory from what is one of the most important moments of the twentieth century. Yet it is this strange detail, now memorialised in my diary for prosperity, which is so evocative of a time in her life totally unique to her. 84 years later, her humour and pragmatism is captured perfectly in this imperfect memory. As my grandfather commented later, “only your nanny would remember it that way.” Isn’t that the magic of history?