Harold Gill (1919 – 2003): Life Writing, Class & Identity

The auto-biography written by Harold Gill, suggests that Gills approach to life writing conforms more to the classification of ‘self-examination’ as identified by Regenia Gagnier who penned six types of working-class autobiographies. The self-examination approach suggests that the writer has introspective a tendency to emphasize on individual explanations rather than social. Harold Gill can be seen to take this approach to his writing as he says “Looking back from a vantage point of 35 years on, and from the higher pinnacle of wisdom allied to maturity, and in a belated attempt at self- analysis, I would say that this was an effort to keep faith with that part of the soul which still appreciated…beauty” (page 24, section 2). Gill discusses the hardships of being a prisoner of war and explains in detail how he and his comrades endured pain, punishment and illnesses throughout their capture. He also explains that despite all of the above, they somehow found pleasure in the little things such as sharing jokes with one another and laughing at those unfortunate enough to have a “tuk-too” lizard “piddle” on them whilst they slept. Gill stated that “the sound of the ‘tuk-too’, and some unwary body rising from his bed with a curse never failed to send us into fits of laughter, -until it happened to us”. (Page 14, section 2).

Throughout his auto-biography Gill also can be seen to use the ‘conversion narrative’ which suggests the writer sees life as a test of faith. Gill; however, unlike others who discover their religious calling due to a major life event, was already a devout Catholic. His belief in his religion appears to be reinforced due to his circumstances of being a prisoner of war and it is his faith that enabled him to endure everything he was dealt in Japan. He saw it as a test of his faith and through his constant belief; he was saved when many of his friends died during their capture. “I had already seen some of my closest friends die, – some slowly, – some quickly, – dependant on which fever, or disease had struck them down” (p16 – part 2).

However, religion was not the only thing to influence Gill’s upbringing as within his memoir Gill explains that as a child his family was very poor. He related how Christmas was an expensive holiday that created much expense; something of which his family could not afford. Gill stated that ‘Christmas was a time of austerity and restrictions as a natural sequel to the hazards of winter. Santa Clause, if he existed, ran out of presents by the time he reached Catherine Street’ (P3, Section 1), showing that even from a young age Gill knew of his social class and the burden of which it would carry on his life, this therefore helped to shape his identity.

Throughout the memoir Gill not only talks about the things that helps to keep him sane during his imprisonment at the Japanese camp but he also demonstrates it, as one of the main ways in which he is able to maintain his identity through his writing, his main form of expression being his poetry.

Through his poetry he often expressed his true thoughts and feelings. One of his main pieces explores his thoughts about home and how God is teaching him a valuable life lesson, again it is through this belief that he is able to stay hopeful and that one day he may return home and be with his family once again.

‘“There’s tragedy in the world today for all who care to see,

Just take a stroll into the woods and o’er the windy lea,

Though the bright sun seems to belie my words, there’s truth in what I say

For there you’ll see the trees lamenting and the swallows flying away

And some of you a lesson may learn each according to his mind

Some may gaze with blinded eyes, but others of different kind,

Will see that God in all His works a lesson to us doth teach

That as the summer dies so do we, that death comes once to each,

That we are here to bloom awhile granted life’s short lease

Death to the young a tragedy – to the old sometimes release

And as we watch the summer’s tears, those swirling leaves at play

One spoke through other agency revealing words to say;

“Though my life was short ‘twas as long as thine

Being born and launched in space, for is there time in anything

But beauty youth and grace, and are we not in the drama of life

Each given a part to play, to me a leaf no less than to you

And others of human clay. But now my life has ended and AUTUMN here in truth

I thank the God who moulded me for the green kingdom of my youth.”

And so to you no longer young

Please take the leaf’s lesson to heart

And mourn not for your long lost youth

But thank God from the heart

For childhood beauty youth and love

And others of life’s sweet stages

And what is left to you in age

Memories of a life well led, recorded on Eternal Pages.”’

(p26 – part 2)

However, Gill’s identity can also be seen to evolve over time due to incidents he witnessed during the war. He saw his friends die when he was fortunate enough to live. He has come into contact with people that are from different walks of life, have different backgrounds and experiences. These are the friends that will influence and shape his identity forever because the shared experience of war has bonded them together and that is something that Gill will carry with him for the rest of his life.

Written by Alexandra Meadwell & Joanne Gibson

References:

Gangnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363

See also: Gangnier Regenia. Subjectivities: A History of Self- Representation in Britain, 1832- 1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Gill, Harold, Untitled, TS, pp.66 (c. 31,000 words). Brunel University Library, July 1987.

Picture: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/selcs-writing-lab/quill-pen.jpg

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