On April 15th – only five weeks from now – it will be a century since the Titanic sank. What I would ask you to remember is that, the first time I asked my Grandad about this incident, he was talking about something that had been breaking news when he was already 23 years old.
He remembered hearing about the sinking quite clearly. That’s hardly surprising, given that, in 1958 when I questioned him about, it he was a mere 79 years old. (My grandfather Aloysius was still completely in charge of himself at the age of 95). What intrigues me is how first-hand history can be passed on once people live beyond 80. Not only that, I often catch myself thinking that something happened twenty-five years before today…but when I first started thinking about why and how Hitler rose to power, he had died a mere seventeen years previously; odder still, he had come to power less than thirty years before. As we live longer, spoken history becomes a reality.
Having volunteered for the Lancashire Regiment in late 1914, Grandad – always known in my family as ‘Al’ – first saw action in the summer of 1915. By some miracle, he survived until the Spring of 1916, when he was gassed and then captured. From then until the end of the Great War in 1918, he was a prisoner.
I asked him what his emotions were on being captured, and with a wry smile he said, “Relief. I remember thinking, by God, I’m going to survive”. Until that point, death had seemed to him inevitable.
Al was very amusing on the subject of being a POW. “The first weekend we were there [in Bavaria] on the Sunday the Oberfeldwebel, a huge chap with a grand moustache, came into our hut,” he told me. “And in halting English asked which of us were Catholics. We’d been fed a lot of stuff about the filthy Hun, so the blokes were fearful. But I thought well, I’m a Catholic, I’m going to say so. In the end, four of us stepped forward. ‘Komm mit!’ he said, and so we followed him. He led us down to the local village, and there we celebrated Mass and attended confession. Afterwards, we passed the local hostelry, and he more or less said ‘Do you fancy a pint?’ I can tell you, we had more than a pint. The next weekend, there were twenty-nine Catholics in our hut”.
Eventually, early in 1919, Al came back to what Lloyd-George had dubbed ‘A land fit for Heroes’. He wasn’t impressed: his job as a master carpenter had gone, and his only reward for being machine-gun fodder was a minute pension for having been gassed. Eventually – with no other employment presenting itself – my Grandad became ‘a ding-ding’: a conductor on the Salford trams.
In 1926 during the General Strike, Al joined his co-workers in a stand against wage cuts and ‘the great strike-breaker’ Winston Churchill. The General Strike lasted just nine days. Al – as a prominent organiser – was told his services were no longer required. With three children to support, he led a hand-to-mouth existence from then until the Second World War. My father went out to work as a bread delivery boy at fourteen – and then became the office boy at a cloth merchants he later rose to run as a partner during the 1960s. Dad never voted anything other than Conservative. When I tackled him about this, he shrugged and said, “Bloody Labour for all their grand ideas…what did they ever do for my Dad?”
I last spoke to my Grandad in June 1983 – when he was 94 – just prior to the General Election of that year. I asked him what he thought of Margaret Thatcher. Instead – as old people often do – he answered a different question.
“I’m going to vote Conservative this time,” he said. Bewildered, I asked him why.
“You know,” he said, a twinkle in his eye, “I don’t think Labour’s thinking about my future”.
He came from another age did Alfred Aloysius Ward. One where politics was far too serious to be taken too seriously.