Friday, 22 November 2013

November 22nd, 1963

It has been said that everyone who was over about 10 at the time can remember where they were when they heard Kennedy had died. Ask anyone over 60 now and they could probably tell you.

50 years ago today, I was a student living in a small room in an old Victorian house in Manchester. I can still visualise it vividly. We called it a bedsit, which was short for a combined sitting room and bedroom, and it also had a tiny gas cooker and a sink, so it was a kitchen too. Maybe today you would call it a studio apartment.

I didn’t have a TV, just a small radio. I can’t remember what I was listening to when they broke into the programme with a newsflash. Shots had been fired at the motorcade in Dallas and the President had been injured. Half an hour or so later came the news that he was dead.

I remember feeling a sense of total shock. It was the first major assassination in my lifetime (I was too young to remember Gandhi’s death) and it felt like the end of an era. After growing up with older Presidents (Truman and Eisenhower) and even older Prime Ministers here in the UK, Kennedy had been a charismatic – and young – world figure. I remember watching his inaugural speech on TV, and also the famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ statement. Okay, we all held our breaths for a week in October 1962 when he challenged the Russians in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he (and Jackie too) really was different from anything we’d known in the political scene.

All the controversy following JFK’s death has fascinated me ever since. Different theories continue to appear. The most recent one I heard was that the 3rd shot came from the Secret Service car behind the President’s car. Most people, it seems, reject the 'lone gunman' theory. Jack Ruby's killing of Lee Harvey Oswald adds credence to this, in my opinion, as well as so many other unanswered questions surrounding Kennedy's death. Maybe eventually the truth will be revealed.

Despite the inevitable later criticisms of different aspects of Kennedy’s political decisions and personal life, the fact remains that he is still seen as a symbol of change and hope at the start of the 1960s. Because his presidency was cut short, we can never know just what he would have achieved in the spheres of civil rights and other social issues during what almost certainly would have been his second term of office. We don’t know, either, whether he would have embroiled America in a long war in Vietnam.

All we do know, those of us who lived at the time, is that the world changed on November 22nd, 1963.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

We Will Remember Them

In 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent along the Western and Eastern fronts in Europe. An armistice had been signed, and the Great War had ended, after over four years of the bloodiest warfare ever.

There is an almost cruel irony in the fact that the first and also some of the last shots of the war were fired within fifty metres of each other.

4th Dragoon Memorial,
Casteau, Belgium
On August 22nd 1914, a British cavalry troop, the 4th Dragoon Guards, were involved in the first skirmish with the Germans at a small village called Casteau, near the Belgian town of Mons. During this short battle, Captain E Thomas fired the first shot at the enemy, and killed a German cavalry officer.

Canadian Memorial at Casteau
On the morning of November 11th, 1918, a Canadian Infantry Battalion were on the trail of retreating German soldiers, and after firing their final shots, they stopped firing at 11 o’clock at the village of Casteau.

In the four years between those first and last shots in the small Belgian village, hundreds of thousands lives had been lost in the trenches and battlefields on the Western and Eastern fronts.
August 22nd, 1914                      November 11th 1918
In 1915 Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem after presiding over the funeral of a friend who died in the Second Battle of Ypres:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the poppy becoming one of the world's most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflicts.

In Britain, a Festival of Remembrance is held at the Royal Albert Hall in London on the Saturday nearest to November 11th. It commemorates all who have lost their lives in conflicts. Part concert, part memorial service, it concludes with a parade of representatives of all the armed forces as well as the uniformed volunteer organisations. Once they are all in place in the large arena, there is a two minute silence, and thousands of poppy petals are released from the roof. It is said there is one poppy petal for each person who has died in conflicts.
Image by Sgt G Spark, RAF
The following morning, another service is held at the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, and at the same time, similar services are held at hundreds of war memorials in every part of the country, and also wherever British troops are serving overseas. If  November 11th doesn't fall on a Sunday, a two minute silence is observed 'at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day'.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
(Lawrence Binyon)
My great-uncle's grave in a small cemetery
in the Somme area of France.
He died in March 1918, aged 20.
Stanley Charles Garnar
1897 - 1918



Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Dublin's Fair City

I’m continuing to feature some of the places that appear in my soon to be published new novel ‘Irish Inheritance’ –and today we're visiting Dublin. Jenna and Guy first meet at Dublin airport, visit a lawyer on St. Stephen’s Green, and then spend the rest of the afternoon and evening together.

In such a short time, they don’t see a lot of Dublin, but they do go to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. The illuminated manuscript, considered to be Ireland’s finest national treasure, was created by Irish monks about 800 A.D. It contains the four Gospels in Latin, and is a wonderful example of medieval calligraphy and illumination.

On the way from Grafton Street (the main shopping street in Dublin), Jenna and Guy would have passed one of the city’s many statues. It’s unlikely that this one represents a real person (although some would argue differently) but she features in one of Ireland’s most well-known songs – ‘as she wheels her wheelbarrow, through streets broad and narrow, crying ‘Cockles and Mussels, alive, alive-oh’. Of course, it’s Molly Malone – or, as this statue is sometimes called, ‘The Tart with the Cart’.

They spent the evening in Temple Bar, known as Dublin’s ‘cultural quarter’, due to the photographic and artists’ studios in the area. However, it has become more of a tourist centre, regarded by the locals as having ‘ye olde Irish’ pretensions. There are plenty of bars and nightclubs in the area, as well as street performers and musicians.

On a later visit to Dublin, they crossed the River Liffey on Ha’penny Bridge, a cast iron footbridge which was built in 1816, and known originally as the Wellington Bridge (after the Duke of Wellington). Before the bridge was built, William Walsh operated seven ferries across the river. They were in bad condition, and Walsh was told either to repair them or build a bridge. He chose the latter, and was allowed to charge half a penny from anyone crossing the bridge. The toll was later increased to a one and a half pennies, but was finally dropped in 1919. Officially, the bridge is the Liffey Bridge, but is known to everyone as the Ha’penny Bridge.

What did Jenna and Guy miss seeing in Dublin? The list is probably endless, but here are some of the places I have visited in this wonderful city:

The Guinness Brewery, founded by Arthur Guinness in 1759, has an excellent exhibition (including a tasting experience!) and also one of the best views of Dublin from the Gravity Bar at the top of the building.

Kilmainham Gaol, built in 1796,  has held many famous people involved in the campaign for Irish Independence, including the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, some of whom were executed here. It has also been used as a location for several films, including The Italian Job.

Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
2.0 Generic license.
Attribution: Stephen Sweeney
O’Connell Street is Dublin’s main thoroughfare, named after Daniel O’Connell, a nationalist leader in the early 19th century, whose statue stands at one end of the wide street. Part way along the street is the large Georgian General Post Office, which served as the headquarters of the 1916 Rising. Near the Post Office is the Spire, a stainless steel monument almost 400 feet high, erected in 2002-3, and sometimes referred to by Dubliners as ‘The Spike’ (or even ‘The Stiletto in the Ghetto').

This post would go on forever if I added all the other interesting places in Dublin. Maybe I’ll write about them in a later post.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Finding the person behind the name

After a month’s break from my blog, I’m back again. I shall be posting more photos of Ireland later this week, in honour of my next release ‘Irish Inheritance’ (next February). I’ll also be challenging myself to click ‘Random Article’ in Wikipedia and trying to write something about whatever topic appears there.

For today’s blog, I’m going to share something about which I’ve already written briefly on Facebook. Many years ago, my father picked up an old book in a second-hand bookshop (not sure where but probably in Preston, Lancashire).


It is an old leather bound book, about 6 inches by 4, and over an inch thick. The spine and covers are worn, but all the pages are intact.
It is a History of France, evidently the third volume, dealing with the monarchy in the years 1270 to 1380 and it was published in MDCCXXIV – which, according to my calculations, is 1724.
Interesting enough in itself, of course, even though it is all in French! However, what makes it doubly interesting, is the inscription on the first page.

This says it was picked up at Martinsarte on the Somme Front from a ruined house in 1916, and goes on to say it was just before the advance of the tanks and before the fall of Thiepvalle and Beaumont Hamel.

Thiepval Memorial
This meant nothing to me when my father first gave me the book, but since then I have visited both Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel. The former is the major war memorial to those who died in the Somme area and whose bodies were never found or identified. There are 72,000 names on the memorial; over 90% of these died in the battle that lasted from July to November 1916. There are also 600 British and French graves close to the memorial.
Trenches at Beaumont Hamel
Beaumont Hamel is now the site of the Newfoundland Memorial Park, because the Newfoundland Regiment attacked the Germans here on July 1st, 1916, and suffered appalling losses. In the park some of the front line trenches have been preserved.

But back to the book and its inscription: a few years ago I made a few attempts to trace the Captain Herbert J. Robson who originally found the book, but couldn’t find anything about him, nor could I make out the letters under his name. To me, they looked like R.G.L.C, but I couldn’t get any further than that.

Until yesterday evening! My daughter and I were chatting about the book, and she did an internet search and found a Captain Herbert J. Robson in the London Gazette, May 12, 1908.

Northern Command: Leeds Companies;
Captain Herbert J. Robson resigns his commission.
Dated 31st March, 1908.

This was the breakthrough we needed – because a closer look at the letters in the book inscription showed that they actually said R.A.M.C (not RGLC). So our man was in the Medical Corps. The letters T.F. stand for Territorial Force (later the Territorial Army, which was the volunteer reserve force in peacetime). One assumes he resigned his commission with the Leeds Companies and rejoined the new Territorial Force which was established on April 1st, 1908.

I then found the Forces War Records for the RAMC – and there was Captain Herbert Robson. The record gave his home address as Vernon House, Hillary Place, Leeds. Also, as well as the British War Medal and Victory Medal (which were presented to all those who served in the 1st World War), he received the Silver War Badge in 1916, issued to personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness.

Having found the man and his address in Leeds, I turned to the census and other records, and as a result, I now know that Herbert John Robson was born in 1862 in Filey, Yorkshire, where his father was a chemist on Queen Street. In 1881 Herbert was a medical student in London, and in 1891 he was a surgeon and general practitioner in Leeds. He married Jane Sanders in 1893, and by 1901 they had three children, Arthur aged 7, Olive aged 4, and Robert aged 3.

The only other thing I’ve been able to find out (so far!) is that both Herbert and his wife died in 1931 – Jane first, and then Herbert, less than 6 months later.

Most of this information has been gleaned in the past 24 hours which is a great testament to the value of the internet for research. Perhaps more important, the name at the front of an old book has now become a real person to me.