Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Writers' Wednesday - Digging Up The Past

This week Fiona Harper delves into her own family history and discovers that inspiration for stories is never that far away.

Recently, I discovered that my mother h
ad copies of letters that her father, my grandfather, had written to his brother while on active duty in the Second World War. I settled down to read them. There are more than forty in all, dated from February 1943 when my grandfather was sent overseas, though his participation in the North African campaign, and then following his travels into Malta, Sicily and mainland Italy, until his eventual homecoming late in 1945.

It was fascinating. This was an era of my grandfather’s life I had had never heard him talk about. The letters are low in actual military detail because of censorship, but rich in family history and full of his observations – often humorous – about Army life.

'Pop' in Sicilly (on the left, with pipe)

The first letter is written after a stay in the army hospital j
ust before he set sail. His explanation for his injuries was as follows:

The cause of my accident is no military secret. We were sharing the practice camp with a Polish Regiment who decided to give their dispatch riders a little practice on motor cycles. The one that knocked me over got started and couldn’t stop – the only way he could do so was to run into something & out of several lamp posts and twenty people, he chose me.

More humour followed when he set sail for Africa:

I am afraid that I missed my vocation. I should have been a sailor. Our first day
at sea was very rough and about 90% of the troops aboard were seasick. It was a dreadful night and there was no need to ask any of the men what they had for breakfast. I survived it very well & the only mishap I had was to slip up on a hot brussels sprout during my tour of duty.

But not all the letters brought a smile to my face.

It was obvious how much he worried about my grandmother living in London during the flying bomb attacks with their twin daughters, who weren’t even two years’ old when he left and were almost five when he returned. He also mourned the death of his younger brother who was killed in an RAF training accident, leaving a young pregnant wife behind, and the death of his father while he was overseas fighting for his country.

The detail that captured my imagination most that was, for a glorious two weeks, he was left in sole charge of a small guard detachment based on the famous Lido Island, just across the lagoon from Venice. He had a wonderful villa to live in, a motor launch and a whole fleet of rowing boats at his disposal.

His daily tour of duty lasted exactly five minutes and he spent the rest of the time swimming in the lagoon, fishing, sailing and exploring Venice in the motor launch, which he described as “…a most beautiful place and surpasses anything that I ever expected”. It made me happy to think that after all the horrible things he must have experienced that he had a brief respite in the most romantic of places before he had to return to more taxing duties.

There’s a story in that tale somewhere – I can just feel it.

I remember my grandfather (or ‘Pop’ as my sister and I used to call him) as a quiet and funny man, who used to sing us silly songs and chase us up the stairs with his false teeth in his hand. (We screamed and ran away, but two minutes later we were back for more, laughing). These letters opened my eyes to a different side to him, and made me wish I’d been able to ask him about some of his experiences before he passed away.

Often we think of our families as ‘ordinary’. I suppose, to us, they are, because they are what we’ve always grown up with, but the more I stop and think about it, the more I realise there is no such thing as an ordinary family. They are filled with unique people, each with their own story to tell, full of ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, and maybe we should scratch below the surface of what we think we know about our families, and discover a rich treasury of stories and inspiration.

Fiona's latest book The Bridesmaid's Secret is available now online in the UK and North America and on Amazon.

In her designer suits Jackie Patterson, editor of Gloss! magazine, can take on the world. Yet the moment she arrives in Italy for a big Bella Rosa wedding, and sees her old boyfriend Romano Puccini, her groomed fa├žade disappears. She has a seventeen-year-old secret to tell him from that fateful, sultry Italian summer…


  1. What a wonderful legacy, Fiona! I wish I had more of the letters and photos and general papers of my family, but there is virtually nothing, and neither grandmother was very good about noting people oe dates. Up until this past January I had never even seen a picture of my maternal grandfather, who served in the Coast Guard during WWII and died several years before I was born. No one in the family seemed to remember any pics of him.

    Then this past winter an uncle came across an old snapshot of him (in his uniform) and my grandmother on their wedding day, and had 8x10 copies made for everyone. It was one of the best and most cherished gifts I've ever received!

  2. What a lovely blog Fiona - thank you for sharing - it's brought a tear to my eye. Caroline x

  3. Wow Fiona, there's definitely a story in there. I really enjoyed reading about Pop, and like you I love that he got to Venice and was able to enjoy himself there. Much deserved amid everything that was going on.

  4. We haven't got much in the way of family papers, either. All the letters my grandmother had were long gone. Thankfully my great uncle must have been a bit of a hoarder - we only discovered the existence of these letters a year or two ago.

    Seriously, even without these letters, I started to realise my family have got up to some crazy things that wouldn't look out of place in a soap opera plot line, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who could say that!

  5. Great post! As an archivist, I'm lucky to work with things like this on a daily basis.

    But I wonder what will happen in the future when digital pictures and emails haven't been tucked away or saved in an archives somewhere......

  6. I know, Lynda! The thought of all those memories and stories that could be wiped out and lost is just scary!