I've been asked to give a very short talk at the launch event for the Military Voices project about the joys and challenges of being a volunteer.
"You don't need to speak for very long," Martin reassured me over the phone, "A couple of minutes will be fine..." He went on to tell me that it was the Project Manager, Emma, who had suggested my name - apparently she said I would
be "ideal." I suspect this actually means that she knew I wouldn't say no. As I've told you before, I think I must have that kind of face.
Of course I said
yes, as Emma knew I would. The trouble is that two minutes is simply nowhere near enough to put into words what it has been like being part of this project. I feel like Mark Twain who famously asked a correspondent to excuse his long letter because he "didn't
have time to write a short one."
To start with, I was on not one, but two, different teams: the research team and the interview team. As always my reasoning was:
why be on one team when you could be on two? My task on the research team was to listen to a taped interview with a soldier from the First World War, draw up a summary complete with selected verbatim quotes and submit a short case study. Oh, the thrill of
actually hearing the voice of my Old Soldier across the years, like pulling back a curtain on the past! The man who conducted these interviews back in the 1980s will be at the launch - I can't wait to meet him.
As a member of the interviewing team, I went with my partner Peter to capture on tape the stories of a number of veterans of various conflicts, from the Second World War to the present. You might be thinking I must know a
lot about military history but, honestly, I didn't when I embarked on this project - though I like to think I have a greater understanding now.
When I was
a young reporter, I was once despatched by my Esteemed Editor to interview a farmer who had developed a new machine for harvesting blackcurrants. Even though I was a Biddable Type, I did demur on the basis that I knew nothing about farming and even less about
machinery. The Esteemed Editor's response was that my ignorance made me the ideal person to be sent on this mission because I would ask all the hopelessly naive questions to which our paper's readers would want to know the answers. It would, admittedly, be
excruciatingly embarrassing to expose my lack of knowledge but, according to the Editor, it was all for the Greater Good.
As with the blackcurrant picking
machine, so with my excursion into military history. Hopefully I saw things through different eyes, always looking for the human interest angle. Emma told me yesterday when I met her at the Family History Fun Day (see yesterday's Blog) that my account of one
veteran's departure for war had made her weep. They weren't, in fact, my words at all - I was quoting his insightful thoughts into how his father, a career soldier, must have felt seeing his son off to war. They had had a beer in the local pub before going
to the railway station together - "I didn't know what I was going into, but he did. I've often thought about that, how he must have felt walking back home, knowing he might never see me again.."
Our interview with this particular Old Soldier was the first we did together, Peter and I, and I remember we were so bowled over by his story, so completely carried away by the experience of talking to him, that we found ourselves
completely lost on the drive home.
Sadly I learnt from Emma yesterday that this amazing man died earlier this year, one of five veterans who have passed
on since recording their stories. He had reached a Grand Old Age when we met him but still seemed full of life, still looking forward, even while we were encouraging him to look back.
I am so very, very glad we met him and recorded his amazing story for posterity. I can't wait to get my hands on the massive tome in which his experiences - and those of the dozens of others captured by our Interviewing Team - are
I can't imagine going out at night into No Man's Land to wire up defences. I can't imagine being a young officer, fresh out of school, placed in a position
of command in the Indian Army. Or being a young civvie in top secret Bletchley Park, transcribing messages which could change the course of the war and be the difference between life and death. Or driving a lorry hauling guns up the infamous Tiddim Road, scene
of some of the fiercest fighting in the Burma campaign.
Two short minutes. How will I ever do justice to the incredible experience of listening to those