I’ve been reading Common People, Alison Light’s beautifully written account of her quest for the history of her ‘lost’ ancestors – ‘family history begins with missing persons’ (p. 11), she tells us, and she means ‘missing’ in both senses.
My family moved to Portsmouth about 1953, when my father got a job with the NAAFI; the young Alison Light arrived in the same city a few years later. Like her (p. 1) I was taken on the usual trip to the dockyard to see HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar:
But what fascinates me is the difference between the way the two of us, as we created the foundations of our self, thought about history.
Portsmouth, the city where we lived, was saturated with the past, but the different stories about different times had been plunged into one big wash in my mind, swirling around indiscriminately. (p. 2)
The stories she heard on her trip to the Victory were as ‘recent and remote’ as her mother’s tales about her girlhood, and after the Doctor Who series began in 1963 she had a useful image for her own aspirations: a time-traveller ‘collecting companions by chance from the centuries’ (p. 2). In her view the child’s world, if it exists in time at all, does so in ‘the time of dream and nightmare, of fugue rather than narrative’ (p. 3).
Not for me. From the start my sense of history was organised around the war. Everything I couldn’t remember but my parents told me had happened I thought of as ‘before the war’.
Our flat was in a grim location: on one side the factory, on the other the squat and ugly NAAFI social club. The only clear view was across an acre or so of plain grass to the gates through which we left the estate for the streets of Portsmouth, still showing signs of heavy wartime bombing. But what dominated the landscape was the high black stand of Fratton Park football ground, separated from the NAAFI buildings by a narrow alley. When I visited the compound after a thirty year absence, that black roof, and the darkness it threw across the whole scene, immediately returned to my memory and I knew at once that two apparently contradictory statements were both true: I had forgotten that scene completely, and it had always been and would always be seared into me.
You could see one half of the football pitch from the roof of our block of flats, and my father told me that when Portsmouth had enjoyed a good run in the FA Cup he had been offered huge sums to let people stand on the roof and watch half the game. I had no memory of that, so of course it must have happened ‘before the war’. In fact, it was probably on February 24th, 1954, when Portsmouth lost 2-1 in a replay to Bolton Wanderers in the fifth round of the Cup.
My sense of time had a strange consequence: because I couldn’t remember the war, it must have taken place before the war!
I was, in fact, born five years after it came to an end, and the way in which it dominated my narrative ordering of the past invites an obvious question: when and how did I first learn about my parents’ experiences? Some philosophers like to use the phrase ‘always already’ to signal their distrust of ‘origins’, to show that, however far back you go, you can’t find anything actually beginning. I’m not keen on the idea in general, but it’s certainly true in this case: I always already knew about my parents’ time in occupied Hong Kong!
My first conscious memory of learning about their wartime experience assumes that knowledge: one day, when I was about 4, I asked my father how long they’d been imprisoned by the Japanese. I pictured them in a cell of the kind I’d somehow learnt existed in British prisons, and I couldn’t imagine anyone living in such confinement for more than about a week, so I offered him that possibility. He was a gentle man, for all he’d once been Windsor’s most feared young boxer, but any thought of the war stirred up a huge fury. He no doubt gave me the real figure – three years eight months – and made no attempt to hide his anger at my stupidity. I had failed to understand the length and depth of their suffering.
So the war, the defining fissure in history, was something I should feel guilty about.
Note: My edition of Common People: The History of an English Family was published by Penguin in 2015.
The photo bottom left below shows my parents and the other NAAFI managers and their wives at a dance in 1955 (Source: NAAFI News, Autumn 1955)