Posted in Events, Family

History is Relative

My February column in the Tetbury Advertiser reflects on my father’s role in historic events and looks forward to a talk I’ll be giving next month to the History of Tetbury Society

photo of toddler Debbie with toy washing machine
Before I was old enough to start mangling words, I love the mangle on my toy washing machine

While in my head I still feel about 12, there’s considerable evidence to the contrary, January marked my twenty-fifth anniversary of living in the Cotswolds, and then came my birthday, which occasioned a nostalgic flick through old albums of me as a child at my parents’ house.

These are proper, old-fashioned albums, filled with photos taken with cameras using rolls of film. The 12, 24 or 36 prints per film were developed and printed by the local pharmacist. The cost was so high that we took pictures sparingly, often finishing a film only just in time to beat its expiry date.

For most of the photos of myself as a child, I can remember details of the moment each one was captured, including the colour and texture of the clothes I was wearing, even though the pictures are black and white. What startles me, though, is the realisation that many items in the photos look as if they belong in a museum: my old-fashioned tricycle, my doll’s pushchair (pushchairs, not buggies, in those days), and my toy washing machine, complete with – wait for it – a mangle.

A Voyage with my Father (in Dry Dock)

Photo of my dad with tour guide looking at old photos
My dad impresses our tour guide on the HMS Belfast with photos of his seafaring days

But before I can feel too ancient, my sense of perspective is restored by a trip to the HMS Belfast, now permanently docked in London and run by the Imperial War Museum. Practically my entire family accompany my father (83), who served on the Belfast during the Korean War. He joined its crew at the age of 18, just five years after the end of the Second World War. The museum’s exhibits remind us just how different daily life was then.

As we pass the ship’s NAAFI shop, my father fondly remembers buying sweets, still on ration ashore, to take home to his younger sister. The story captures the imagination of my six-year-old cousin William. “Uncle Peter, could you buy anything in the NAAFI shop?” he enquires. “Oh yes,” says my father, whose needs at sea were few. “Could you buy pizza?” is my cousin’s earnest reply. It’s a striking example of the change in our society’s eating habits in the intervening 66 years.

Museums like these and individuals like my father who carefully preserve photo albums, diaries and letters remind us in our busy, time-pressed world that what happens today is tomorrow’s history. Long may they encourage us to follow in their footsteps.

I’m very much looking forward to visiting the History of Tetbury Society on Thursday 3rd March in Christchurch, The Chipping, to offer advice on recording your memories for the benefit of future generations. I’ll bring with me some inspiring case studies. By the way, proof of age is not required for admission!

My dad on board the HMS Belfast
Once a sailor… (In the background, the Tower of London)

I would like to express huge thanks to the staff of the HMS Belfast who surprised my dad with a guided VIP tour on arrival. I’d phoned in advance to advise them that we were bringing a veteran member of the crew, and as our party boarded the ship, their senior tour guide, Rodrigo, approached us with the words “Is there anyone here who has served on this ship?” It was a priceless moment, and so began a really special tour, taking us to parts of the ship not normally open to the public, including the Admiral’s quarters.

For more information about the HMS Belfast, click here to visit its website.


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English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

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