“History becomes, to put it simply, more democratic…” – a writer’s perspective

My Father’s War is based on a mixture of my personal memories of Dad and the personal stories and reports of young men who slogged through the mud and blood of Flanders.

 So, I have been thinking about the value of first-hand accounts.  Given the vagaries, limits and intentional leanings of our personal memory, and the impact of the passage of time, how can they be trusted?

And yet, our memories are the matrix through which everything is filtered.

 The child begets the adult.

So, given that we must accept that personal stories may not be absolutely factual, why give them value?

 This is from Liddle and Richardson’s Voices from the Past –

“…By introducing new evidence from the underside, by shifting the focus and opening new areas of inquiry, by challenging some of the assumptions and accepted judgements of historians, by bringing recognition to substantial groups of people who had been ignored, a cumulative process of transformation is set in motion. The scope of historical writing itself is enlarged and enriched; and at the same time its social message changes. History becomes, to put it simply, more democratic. The chronicle of kings has taken into its concern the life experience of ordinary people…”

My dad was one of ten kids; the son of a builder’s labourer who grew up in Ganges St, West End.

The most formative experience of his life was serving on the Western Front in 1917/18. That shaped his every idea, every attitude and deeply-held belief, for the next 60 ears.

And our lives, because of that.

So, what happened there?

What events from so long ago shaped my childhood?

I’m actually finding that out as we go.

Seeing my family’s history come to life in a story that speaks to every family who has ever had someone in a war.

A friend and supporter,Taryn, heard one of the first readings and said she was ‘so moved’ by it. She really wanted it to be heard by high school students. The fabulous Russian-Australian acro trainer who worked on the development, Aliya Abisheva, told me that the story made her wish she had spoken to her grandfather about ‘a box of precious things’ that he kept from the war.  He had been in the Soviet Army in WW2 and she now wondered what that was like for him.

“… Leaving aside for a moment the question of sheer weight of evidence pointing in this or that direction, the value of an individual recording… should never be dismissed. …(P)recise dating can be a problem… (For example), Brigadier F.P.Roe (Lieutenant,6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment)…produced a fine tape-recorded account of being gassed at the Second Battle of Ypres, April-May 1915, but it would be extremely difficult to ascertain whether he was gassed on the famous first day, or during one of the subsidiary actions, as the Germans continued to gas throughout the month of May…The matter might or might not be cleared up by reference to war diaries… but this, in a sense, is missing the point, since the value of his recording lies not in its technical accuracy but in the nature of the experience as Roe described it, visually, physically, mentally:

“… It came like a thick yellow cloud. The sun turned an extraordinary mauve purple. The gas made us violently sick, it led to tears streaming down our faces, it deprived us completely of any appetite, and we had no idea whatever of what the nature of the gas was…”

(And of course, there were gases that disabled, and gases that eventually killed. Shredded a man’s lungs. I’ve used that very account in the play.) 

And in the end, isn’t that what theatre does, on the most basic level? We tell each other our stories. 

This project is supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland, and has been supported by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and the Tivoli, and also through the QANZAC 100 Fellowship Program run by State Library of Queensland.