We were all drilled at school about the importance of primary sources when conducting historical research. There’s no better way of learning about history than from the accounts of people who lived through it – and so this blog post explores the wealth of knowledge that can be gained by talking to people we know about their experiences and memories.
My grandmother (known affectionately as Nana) has always loved to talk to me about her memories of the Second World War. As a child, I used to grow bored and restless as soon as she started on “one of her rambles” – but over the years, I’ve begun to appreciate just how much I can learn from hearing her tales of this incredibly difficult period which shaped her childhood.
Nana was five years old when war broke out in 1939; rationing, blackouts and air-rides are likely some of her first memories. I’m amazed she can still remember it all so vividly, but I’m so pleased that she does, because I love hearing about what life was like in the Welsh countryside during the war.
One might think that, living in North East Wales, Nana and her family would have escaped much of the impact of the war. However, her village was in fact directly on the German bombers’ route to the city of Liverpool, which was a prime target. Air raids were therefore a common occurrence, with Nana and her family often having to shelter in the dead of the night. Apparently they never did have an Anderson shelter, though – Nana and her twin sisters would be put to bed under the large dining table! Luckily their house was never hit, but one bomb did land in a field nearby!
It wasn’t only during the night that they were faced with the dangers of the war – Nana vividly recalls standing on the school playground one morning, cheering on a British Spitfire as it engaged in a dogfight with a German plane in the skies overhead. War had an impact on mealtimes, too – I’m sure the lack of sweet treats as a child helped Nana to maintain such perfect teeth until well into old age! The family never went without, though, as her father kept an allotment, and jointly raised a pig with their neighbours which they eventually shared between them.
Possibly my favourite wartime story is the morning Nana woke up to find several members of her family from Liverpool lying asleep upon various pieces of furniture – even in the bathtub, if I recall it correctly! Their house had been bombed, leaving them with nowhere to live, so they had come to stay at Nana’s house for a while.
With Nana and her twin sisters, the house must have already been quite full, so I genuinely have no idea how they found room for the Liverpool crowd! It must have been pretty stressful for Nana’s parents – but as a young child, it would have been so much fun to have a houseful of family! It’s nice to think that there were some nice times during what must have been a dark few years.
Sadly I’m no longer able to have these kinds of conversations with Nana, as she suffers from dementia, so her attention span is not what it used to be. I really am so glad that I managed to learn as much as I could about her childhood while I had the chance.
So, what are you waiting for? Next time one of your older relatives starts rambling on about “the good old days”, try to actually listen to what they’re saying rather than yawning and rolling your eyes! You never know – they might have the inspiration for your next historical fiction story right in their head, just waiting to be shared!