Harold Gill was born in 1919 in the small northern village of Wesham. He was the seventh child of a bricklayer, making him the seventh child of a seventh child. This was a ‘dubious honour’ (1), yet one held in high regard by he and his sister Agnes. Harold’s memoir is a contrasting mix of charming childhood nostalgia and traumatic recollections of war. Each tale, no matter how cheery or ghastly, is delivered in the same bullish and quintessentially British voice that encapsulates Harold’s life.
The hardships of working-class life are recounted in the first sections of the memoir. Harold recalls the absence of a national health service and the daunting prospect of medical bills. Demand for food and clothes grew with the family, and ‘hand-me-downs’ and hard wearing shoes became a necessity. But the struggles were at least relieved by overwhelming neighbourliness and community. ‘Aunt Molly was the only Santa Clause that we ever knew and her generosity to us children was all the more meritorious as she had a family of her own’ (3). Without the backing from social services that some families have now, working-class families relied on pulling together and helping each other out to survive.
The Gill family faced their worst financial troubles during hostile winters. These were only aggravated by Harold’s fathers refusal to ‘put himself of t’Lloyd George’ (2)–or poor relief–a much more ‘degrading and humiliating’ (2) version of todays benefits system. Despite this, Harold summons his childhood memories with fondness and ease. He provides anecdotes of schoolboy devilry and romantic close calls: ‘in running away I missed for all time a unique opportunity of enlarging, or enriching my world of experience’ (9). Harold’s war experiences are much more difficult to redeem. He notes that they require ‘considerable concentration to resurrect from the shadowy recesses of my mind’ (1).
Like most children growing up in the beginning of the 20th century, Harold’s childhood revolved heavily around religion. His weekends were dominated by the Church and his alter-boy duties. His catholic beliefs even gained him some enemies: ‘in my amazement at the sudden attack and verbal vilification, I made the only retort I could mentally muster, and this too, had canine implications, “Proddy dog!” I countered’ (5).
Harold’s chronicles shift without warning from sweet memories of youth to the strange relief and excitement of war, and then to the living hell of Japanese capture. ‘Some of us wept virgin tears of a misery, abject, utter, and complete’ (25). Harold describes the gruelling torture that he and his comrades were put through. Some of the darkest episodes of history are re-animated by his story-telling prowess. Harold recalls the notorious ‘Railway of Death’ (33) and the ‘lethal scythe’ (53) of cholera plaguing his camp. Still, the narrative tone remains upbeat and optimistic throughout. It is this iron-willed hope that dragged Harold through the monstrosities of World War Two.
The unvarnished reality of war is provided through Harold’s poems. Written in the camps, time has not mellowed these memories. Only through these fragments of the memoir can we truly explore the mind of a Japanese prisoner of war.
‘And so with death all around me now,
I await God’s hand upon my brow’ (55).
The collection of poems embedded within the memoir are typical of Harold’s romanticism and literary eloquence. Unlike many people born in the early 20th century, he writes accurately and beautifully. His style implies an appetite for learning and education, which is confirmed on occasion: ‘I was something in the nature of being that same teacher’s pet’ (1).
The memoir concludes with Harold’s liberation and subsequent return to England. The liberators are described as ‘different’ (67). Harold remembers that ‘their hair shone whereas ours was dull and lifeless’ (67). The liberation is a moment of glory for Harold, marking the end of his suffering and torture. The reunion with his father is recalled in hardheaded and unsentimental terms, typical of a working-class Lancashire bond: ‘A voice, distinguished by it’s throatiness, – a most welcome voice, without a trace of emotion, and un-accompanied by hand-shake’ (67). He leaves his mother’s embrace to the imagination, as ‘some of life’s scenes’ are ‘too sacred to print’ (68).
Gill, Harold, Untitled, TS, pp.66 (c. 31,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library, July 1987, 2:316
Image of ‘Christ Church, Wesham’. Accessed 18/02/19. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_Church,_Wesham
Image of ‘Allied prisoners of war awaiting liberation, 1945’. Accessed 18/02/19. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33931660