I’m writing a section of a GCSE text book at the moment, for Edexcel’s recently approved spec (for teaching next year!). The section is about London in the Second World War, and it’s part of their warfare through time unit. This summer also I wrote a book about the Restoration for AQA’s new spec GCSE. Both periods involve a fair amount of bad fortune, evil intent and death, as do many periods of history. After a summer of counting victims of the Plague in 1665 I thought I was immune to the tragedy that history presents, especially as I’m often the person who scoffs at the celebs mourning the passing of long-dead, far-distant relatives on ‘Who do you think you are’.
However, recently I’ve had to question the extent to which I can remain detached from the people I’m studying, and also to question why events such as the recent attacks in Paris seem more real, more shocking than those arguably much worse atrocities being carried out much more frequently across the middle east.
So, here’s what happened. Whilst researching for the book, I surprised myself by sniffing back tears when I read these notices in the Register of Civilian Deaths on Ancestry.com:
I had been following a gang of unofficial volunteer firefighters called ‘the Dead End Kids’ who operated out of a warehouse in Wapping at Watson’s Warf. But, it wasn’t words that brought me to the kids, it was a picture of the face of a young lad called Shamus O’Brien. This photo (below) was taken by the amazing Bert Hardy, for publication in the London Picture Post (though I’m not sure that it ever was printed). Shamus immediately grabbed my attention; his frayed coat, chipped teeth and man’s-hat-on-a-small-head made me think of a young person signing up for something that he didn’t really understand. Looking at the date made me think again – by April 1941 the Blitz had been going on for more than 7 months – so Shamus and the other ‘kids’ had seen real action – perhaps that might explain the wear and tear to his coat, and his dentistry.
The Dead End Kids took their name from a group of Holywood child actors who starred in films about rough kids with hearts of gold. They were led by Patsy Duggan the eldest lad in the gang. It didn’t take me long to learn more about the Duggans, as they were a big family in Wapping (in every sense), and because they’d been the subject of a long piece for the New Yorker Magazine by Mollie Painter Downes. She tells stories of the Kids rushing into buildings, rescuing people, dragging incendiary bombs into rivers and earning heroic status. This piece is a fascinating presentation of life in London during the blitz tailored for an American Audience, and it was this article that had sent me to the record of civilian deaths on Ancestry.com. Painter Downes wrote of the deaths of two of the kids, on the night of the 29th December, a raid that focused on the City of London and the East end. The fires that night were so bad that the event became known as ‘The Second Great Fire of London’. I wanted to corroborate the New Yorker piece, and to find out whether the Kids really did lose two members that night.
Painter Downes writes of ‘two of the [Dead End] Kids, Ronnie Ayres and Bert Eden [being] killed during the raids while tackling blazes with the gang’. Checking the records told me that she was right, other than the spelling of names. But the record told me more. Ronnie was killed on Thomas More Street (marked in yellow), where Bert lived with his parents, and Bert died across the other side of St Katharine’s Dock on St Katharine’s Way. Both these streets were a short walk from the relative safety of the shelter.
I suppose my mind went back to the other pictures I’d looked through on the Getty image bank that had the Kids showing off for Bert Hardy’s camera. Running up ladders, pulling carts filled with buckets and tin helmets, all this looked like great fun – but I realised that not all the kids were in that picture, because Ronnie and Bert had already died by the time they were taken. That’s when their deaths became real to me, and when the kids’ story became more than just a story.
This research was all happening in November 2015, when the Paris attacks took place. Like most people I was horrified by these events, and like most people I knew on an intellectual level that there was something terribly and awfully normal about them, taking into account what is happening across north Africa and in the Middle East, where terrorists kill civilians, and military forces kill terrorists, and civilians. Some of my friends questioned online our feelings, and posted details of equally dreadful attacks in other places, which hadn’t affected me at all. They pointed out that the Syrian refugees who exercise the attention of so many journalists were fleeing the kinds of terror that happened just once in Paris, but happened every day where they had been living. I saw that they were right, of course, but wondered why I felt so differently about the Paris attacks.
The answer is obviously distance – spatial, cultural; and insulation – we are insulated from the world as many people experience it by the distances between us, and by the way that modern media presents stories quickly – a video, a stat, a vox-pop and then onto the next item.
History isn’t the only, or even the most effective way of helping us widen our knowledge of the lives of other people. However, the experience that I had this autumn, and the experiences that I have had in the classroom suggest that helping students to pause over the study of someone different from the past, well this pause might help them get the right kind, and perhaps the right amount of distance.