Remembering my grandfather

Today, on the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, I’m thinking about my grandfather, Harry Robert Spencer. He was (like many others) too young to join up and lied about his age to do so anyway. I can’t begin to guess what that was like and what went through his mind, only that he told the story with pride. Foolish pride perhaps.

So, away he went and fought, part of the “poor, bloody infantry”, rising through the ranks to Major at some point and being decorated several times. Badly wounded at the Somme, he was on the point of having his leg amputated in a field hospital, when more casualties suddenly came in and by the time they had been dealt with the surgeons decided that my grandfather’s leg probably didn’t need to go.

That was one of only two stories he told of that war. I won’t tell you the other one. It’s too awful.

There’s something we forget about this war, amongst the shocking stories of very young men dying in grotesque conditions, and that is that, since 888,246 British soldiers died (around 10-12%, depending on which figures you take), nearly 90% survived. Those young men came back, with or without wounds, with their youth destroyed. Many of them were broken or brutalised, the wounds invisible.

Some of those who were broken, if temporarily, with so-called “shell shock”, ended up in the Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, now part of Napier University. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were two of them.

And as for those who were brutalised, the television series, Peaky Blinders, made a big impression on me. Set in 1919 and onwards, it portrays young men harshened and damaged by the horrors they faced in the trenches and tunnels, then returning to Birmingham and their terrifying gang, the Peaky Blinders, in a story reflecting the politics, emotions and social changes of the time and heralding the “troubles” of Northern Ireland.

My grandfather was neither broken nor brutalised. He was the gentlest man. He died thirty-four years ago, living with us for the last seven years of his life. When we were younger, he always let me and my sisters win at card games, taught us rude songs, watched old Westerns with us, always slipped us all his “brown money” because he claimed not to like it and would sing invented opera songs where the entire lyrics consisted of “I want a beer”. I gave him a minor role in my first novel, Mondays are Red, though he died before I even knew I wanted to be a novelist. “Grandpa is kind and twinkling, bad in the best sense. A wicked way with words and quite likely to slip money into my hand for the smallest reason. He smells of sweet tobacco and jazz.”

I haven’t forgotten him and today I remember him particularly.

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Have you seen this astonishing and inspirational art installation of 888,246 poppies at the Tower of London? I’ve registered for a chance to buy one of them.

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8 Responses

  1. Nicola, I remember reading these words about the Grandfather in Mondays are Red – they made me think of my own grandad. Who died nearly 30 years ago and who I still miss everyday.
    Lovely piece here.

  2. Thursday 7th August 2014

    Dear Nicola,
    What a lovely tribute to your grandfather. It makes me wish that I could show your text it to my father, who was interested in World War I, but served in WW2. Alas, Daddy passed away in July of 2006. I miss him dearly.

    But this is not what I intended to say to you.

    I have almost finished reading Writing to get Published and I really like it. I have even mentioned your book on on a post for “Insecure Writer’s Support Group” on my blog, “Adornments for Dreams” ( http://annas-adornments.blogspot.se/2014/08/iwsg-insecure-writers-support-group_6.html ) (It’s a jewellery blog that has gone astray. I do make jewellery, but I think a lot about other forms of creativity too.)

    I had not heard of you before I stumbled upon your how-to write book, but I will try to read your novels and I am even interested in your work on how children think and develop. (It’s not hard to understand. I live in Sweden.)

    Yes, I dream about writing a novel. But I have a few practical problems to solve before I can seriously sit down an write it. (But I do write sketches though.)

    Anyway, it was a pleasure making your acquaintance.

    Best wishes,
    Anna Nordeman,
    wannabee writer and admirer.

    1. Huge thanks for your supportive comments, Anna. I’m really glad you enjoyed the advice in Write to be Published. I hope you manage to get to the point of writing your novel soon, although that thinking and “gestating” time will stand you in very good stead when you do reach that point. Very best wishes to you in Sweden!

  3. I am so glad to have found your site and have signed up for new post notifications. I ‘stumbled’ across you on one of those web-based journeys that you think will take half an hour and somehow takes all day. I’ve been researching literary consultants/editors for self publication.
    But I digress. I loved reading about your grandfather; he made me smile and I never even met him.
    I find myself thinking and reading about the young men from that era of The Great War, not least because I happened across some long-forgotten fragments of pencil-written letters home from my great Uncle, one of the thousands to lose his life on the first day of the Somme. My imagination has been gripped by what I know of his story, and what I don’t know has evolved into the plot of the next novel I am about to start, after copious research, set in and around Carlisle and France. Your grandfather’s presence now joins those of all the other men, and women, who have crossed my path on this journey. Thank you for sharing him.

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