WW1 and family genes

My grandfather, bottom left

My grandfather, bottom left

My maternal Grandfather was born in 1898 and died around 1958 or thereabouts. Having never met him (or, sadly, my Grandmother) I only have snippets of their character from my mum and inevitably don’t hold much emotional attachment to them. They are names, and were important figures in my mum and her two brothers’ lives but mean little to me.

And yet, it struck me the other day, without them both I would not be here. Without them, my mother wouldn’t have been born, nor met my dad, nor had me and my brother as children. My girlfriend wouldn’t have met me, and somebody else would be living in this house and doing the job I do. I owe my existence to their survival.

So far, so obvious, so sickly.

The reason this all came to me was the dumb realisation that my grandfather fought in and survived WW1 – fought as a 2nd Lt, the rank of soldier who most got culled throughout the war. It occurred to me how little I knew of his feats, or how he managed to survive while millions perished. I’d always been blase about his involvement, partly because it was in World War One (most of my generation’s grandparents were likely born on or around WW2), a war about which I know embarrassingly little, but also because nobody in my family knows much either.

That’s how it was, of course. If you survived the hell of war, you certainly didn’t talk about it, and my grandfather was a wallflower at the best of times. Not even his son, my uncle who fought in Malaya in the 1950s, knew anything of his father’s deeds, other than he was awarded an MiD (Mention in Dispatches) and the troop/company to whom he belonged. We know nothing other than several cuttings from the London Gazette that my cousin discovered.

So, if I am indebted to his survival, I’m also indebted to his parents. And theirs. And my great-great-great-great grandparents. Had just one of those people not survived, or met a different husband/wife, I wouldn’t be here. None of us would. I’m not sure if genealogy has a connection with the butterfly effect, but it does seem to share similarities. It’s also a mind fuck. Had one of the Hun’s stray bullets headed in his direction, I wouldn’t be inflicting this rambling saccharine nonsense on whichever poor soul is reading it.

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Castlepoint Lighthouse, Wellington, built by my family

About ten years ago I was arguing with my aunt about our paternal family history. To my astonishment, a quick Google search uncovered my entire family history stretching back to the early 1600s. The only missing parts were, well, me and my brother and father. It had been done by a lovely bloke who was housebound due to an illness, and had discovered that his family, Taylor, and ours had married in the 15th or 16th century. Since then, he helped me find the tiny little Cornish town where my family lived, Phillack, near St Ives, which is doubly odd considering all the family holidays we had there as a kid. Makes you wonder…

Since knowing my family’s history in such detail, I have to admit it’s changed my outlook on life a little. Knowing all that they accomplished gives you an incredible feeling of duty to carry it on. Hasn’t quite gone to plan as yet, as I haven’t built any ships, engines, lighthouses, mines or buildings or been a politician nicknamed Peanut, or had a road named after me, but there’s time yet.

BBC’s WW1 centenary season

The BBC have had a pretty shoddy few years. Savile and Newsnight; pay-offs and salary disputes, camera trickery and other sleight of hand within its management. The organisation – not something everyone would deem it fit to be called – is so vast that many who work there consider it a corporation of mini corporations. But for all its many faults, the BBC continue to produce some of the most watchable, popular and educative programming anywhere in the world. Who else could even contemplate competing with the ambition they have shown in their World War One “centenary season”?

Of course, a centenary only happens once, and let’s not be naive: the BBC, like all companies, needs success – now more than ever. Success for them is in numbers, eyeballs, readers and consumers, so there’s no grander way to prove their worth than by dramatising parts of our history whose stories have yet to be properly told. And why not start with the bloodiest of conflicts? Seems as good a place as any.

The scale of this project is startling in its ambition. iWonder guides (digital interactive content); 1400 separate local stories; apps and microsites; nine or ten TV documentaries on TV, yet more on radio. Fully-fledged films. Programmes dedicated to the art and music born during the war. There’s even a radio programme called Day By Day broadcast every day between June and August showing the build-up to the war, “live”, 100 years on. The list goes on.

As a friend said the other day, the only annoyance is the pre-curtain-raiser anxiety of knowing that you can’t possibly watch everything, but there’s a part of me which wouldn’t mind putting my life on hold for a few months and gobbling it all up. I’ve been fascinated by World War Two all my life – I think most of my generation are, in fact – but know little of its predecessor. The BBC’s going to change that and I’ll happily pay my licence fee for that.

Talking of which…

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It’s coming to that time of the year when I have to renew my TV licence. I always hold an unjustifiable grudge about this; I love the BBC, its programming, authority and balance. Well yes – the scandals are a bit of a blight, as are the pay rows and bonuses, and some of the output is outrageously repetitive and often the presenters talk to us as though we’re imbeciles and I hate it when the local news people with enormous shiny faces just appear in between programmes “with YOUR 90 second update” (it’s mine? Oh, thanks, but no thanks).

But apart from all that, I admire the BBC and watch its channels (and listen to its radio) more than any other broadcaster, and £145 a year represents incredible value for money.

Anyway. This came up recently while C and I were comparing Portuguese and British media (we are thrill-seekers). In Portugal the equivalent licence fee is included with their electricity and costs roughly €3/month, but all they get for that are two measly TV channels (RTP1 and RTP2) and some radio. The rest is privately owned and, overall, the quality is fairly mixed. Their daily national evening news, for example, lasts an interminable hour-and-a-half, every night. And on their commercialised channels, you can forget brief four-minute advert breaks. You have enough time to make dinner and, in some cases, gobble it up, salted cod and all. In contrast, not only is our news distilled to about 25 minutes, but we have a stack of regionalised news centres around the country.

£145 is a lot of money, but we get a vast amount. BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, and BBC News. The entire BBC website is free and uncommercialised. Mobile apps; catch-up apps, supportive apps and other appy apps. The BBC World Service, the largest international broadcaster. BBC Radio. And bear in mind, when the licence fee was first established in 1948, it cost £2/year – the equivalent to over £70 in 2010, but you didn’t get much for your money.

We are a nation of moaners, and that’s a good thing, but we really have no idea how lucky we are to have the BBC.