History is all about people. So it’s unfortunate that historians are hampered by word count, yet have the necessity of imparting as many facts as possible about events which occurred at certain periods in certain places, for, as far as they know, whatever reasons, into school history books. Which does tend to make the books rather dull, and difficult for a teacher to arouse any enthusiasm in the students.
What reader is interested in, or inspired by, dry, boring facts? In Scotland of the nineteen fifties, for the final nation-wide exams on history at a certain level, knowledge of ancient history was essential. The student was expected to know the dates of famous battles such as Thermopylae, and the Punic wars, and what caused them, the Spartans and the Carthaginians, and so on. As my mother patiently tested me I droned the answers as a fourth grader would the multiplication tables. At length Mother threw down the book in exasperation.
“What did the ordinary Spartans, or any of these people, look like? Were their families looked after while the men were away? You know nothing about the ordinary lives of these people, yet you have to learn the dates of all these wars and battles. What do you know about the Great War? (that was the first world war,1914-19) My uncles fought in that, and so did some of your Daddy’s brothers. These were men I knew. What do you know about them? Blind Hughie, the pedlar, you mind (remember) him? That was shrapnel did that at Mons. Can you tell me the date of that battle? Passchendaele? That’s history. History is all about people, ordinary people. They count.”
I reflected my own grandchildren know next to nothing about the Second World War, and its devastating effects on peoples’ lives in town and country in the land of my birth. Good, decent people, whose stories deserve to be told. This prompted Alec’s War, a story about the effects of WWll on a schoolboy and his family after the attack on Clydebank in March, 1941. The Blitz hammered mainly London and the major English industrial cities; in quiet Clydebank, next sizeable town to Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow, they still spoke of the phony war. Until the Germans decided to attack John Brown’s Shipyards on the River Clyde.
War stories after 1946 claimed that Hitler issued orders to bomb civilians in order to break the British spirit and demoralise the troops. It had the opposite effect. Modern historians are charitable regarding the bombing of Clydebank. The Forth and Clyde Canal runs parallel to the River Clyde at Clydebank; they suggest the Germans mistook the canal for the river, thus the civilians, not the ships on the Clyde or in John Brown’s yards, took the brunt of the attack. Not a shop window in the town was left intact, and seventy per cent of the dwellings were destroyed. The spirit of the people was not; in the midst of the mourning and grim determination to carry on, they exhibited wry, sometimes gallows, humour. I glimpsed a fraction of what they had to endure when I first visited Clydebank to stay with my high school friend. Though it was well into the fifties, there were still many pock-marked buildings and vacant sites where craters made by bombs had been filled in but were still undeveloped, left overgrown and forlorn.
Rendered homeless, Alec and his siblings were evacuated to live with his aunt in the country. They had often stayed for summer holidays with her in the rural village where she taught. This time, he found life there was not going to be as quiet as on previously visits. The tentacles of war snarled lives just as much, if in different ways from the cities. There was the Black Market, the Fifth Columnists who undermined the government’s war effort, and sundry spies. Alec, a keen Sherlock Holmes fan, finds a mission of his own. Young children of those days were as enterprising and innovative as children have always been. They also had considerably more responsibility than we allow our modern children to enjoy.
Mother was right – history is all about people; ordinary people doing extraordinary things.