I have begun a new project. I am so completely absorbed by it that I am deleting my old blog and devoting this space entirely to this new theme. I hope you’ll be as gripped by it as I am…
One of my earliest memories is of a war memorial. We were sitting in the church where I grew up, waiting for the service to begin, and out of tedium I began to read through the names on the marble tablet on the wall. My mother hushed me. Relatives of the men who had died might be upset by it, she said. Since she was not someone to reprove her children normally, I could tell that this was a solemn object indeed.
In those days, the Second World War was still raw in the memory of my parents’ generation. My mother’s father fought in the First World War, losing an eye; he then went back as a stretcher bearer and lost him an arm. (He died just as I was born, as a result of which I was the lucky one who was given his ornate silver christening mug; for obvious reasons, I imagined him as Nelsonian.) Decades later, the two World Wars seem more remote, but the war memorials are still there, in almost every village in the country — as well as schools, colleges, railway stations, department stores, town halls, factories, offices, banks: any institution that was functioning in the first half of the twentieth century. The village memorials are specially poignant because of their peaceful setting. So many names, particularly from the First World War; such small communities. I know I’m not the only person who finds himself often looking at them, with feelings of grief tinged with awe and wonder. Would our generation give so much? Who were the people who went to fight? What had been their lives in the village, and what did they face overseas?
I have decided to write a book about one. I’ve chosen Lydford in Devon. It isn’t quite a random selection. On the western edge of Dartmoor, Lydford is a quiet place, whose residents are determined to do without street lighting; but it has an interesting history, having been a Saxon burgh (it could mint its own silver coins) and a castle that used to serve as a prison for the rough justice meted out by the stannary (tin-mining) courts. The war memorial, a granite cross, is unusual in having names from after the Second World War on it – one from the Falklands, another from Iraq. But of those and the other 21 names – 13 from the First World War — I knew nothing when I set out. They are simply shown with the initials, not even Christian names or ranks.
Who were those 23 individuals? They might have been thatchers or builders, gardeners or grooms; young men who played on the village football team – or perhaps hardly knew Lydford, having come from another part of the country to marry a local girl, before being sent to the Front. They could have been brilliant young scholars, or country boys, happy enough to follow their fathers’ trades. They met their deaths on the Somme, at Gallipoli, on the sea, in the air. I have started to find out about them. And although I am only at the beginning of my project, I am finding myself drawn deep into the lives of the men (and one woman) who died. In some cases, they are not at all what I had expected.