‘Whether busy, slack or rushed it was always interesting.
Meeting people from all walks of life was a pleasure’ (97).
In his memoir ‘Down Memory Lane’, Cecil George Harwood reflects upon his childhood and early working life in Welwyn, Hertfordshire. Through his writing, he preserves his memories of the First World War and of his happy marriage to Gladys.
Writing aged 83, Cecil frequently draws comparisons between the present day and ‘the old life’ (21) that he remembers. He recognises that ‘much has altered since those early 1900’s’ (9), and when chance arises, highlights these changes in society. When describing the boots that he would wear to school, Cecil says ‘most of us wore hobnails. For those of you who have never seen one, it was a nail with a rounded head and there were four rows in each boot’ (2).
Cecil clearly intended his memoir to be read by a future audience. He dedicates his memoir to his wife and later handwrites an address to his son, Douglas, and daughter-in-law, Brenda. Considering this alongside his writing delivers a sense of Cecil’s hope that the story of his life would be passed down for generations, through the children of Douglas and Brenda.
Regenia Gagnier notes the self-confidence and worldly insight that autobiographers, like Cecil, gain from writing their stories towards the end of their lives: ‘These storytellers have the wisdom of the past; they do not have crises of self or doubts about their ability to speak, although they may be melancholy when they realise that their way of life will cease to be, and they may be relieved not to have to participate in the new ways of the future’ (Gagnier, 350).
This is true of Cecil, who writes to emphasise and commemorate ‘the ordinariness of 20th century society. He depicts the Postman and the Telegraph boy as two resilient cornerstones of the community, saying ‘Postmen from the very early years, that I remember, were always spick and span with their uniforms of dark blue with red piping… Telegraph boys wore similar uniforms and rode a red bicycle, this was the pattern up to 1914. The postman’s journey was done on foot and come wind and rain, frost or snow, one could rely on the letters arriving’ (9). As with other autobiographies, such as William Belcher’s (1884 – 1961), Cecil’s memoir moves chronologically though his life. Within the writing of both men, there is a deeply felt need to recount the events of the past in immensely specific detail, perhaps as a form of self-reflection.
Cecil served in the British Armed Forces from September 1914 to March 1917 and dedicates a large portion of his memoir to documenting his experiences. He arrived in France in Autumn 1915, and vividly recalls ‘entering the mouth of the Seine. The morning broke clear and warm and as it grew light one could distinguish odd groups of people on the far-off banks… cheering crowds lining the bank in places’ (29 – 30).
Cecil explicitly notes his intention to portray the ‘lighter side’ (30) of war, saying ‘whatever is written from Autumn 1915 to 13th November, 1916 will be authentic, but I will leave out as far as possible most of the gruesome side of war’ (30). His motives for excluding the horrific details of the Great War remain unexplained. We are left to question whether this exclusion is for the benefit of his intended audience, or if Cecil deemed certain events too painful to revisit. However, the many tales of comradeship that he does include suggests that Cecil felt a lack of representation in the collective memory of the First World War. He writes of good-humoured pranks in a bid to inform his reader that it wasn’t all bad: ‘There were plenty of laughs out of it all, no ill feelings, all were good sports’ (29).
At the end of his memoir, Cecil announces the death of his wife. He began his memoir that same year and completed his work in 1978. I believe that Cecil wrote in an attempt to fill this void, to relive the happy times that they spent together, and to occupy himself throughout his own struggles with ill health.
‘After this last bout I was found to be diabetic and I also had blood pressure. I had to give up Church work and Gladys and I just stayed at home to look after each other. Our visits to church were far fewer. Finally on November 8th, 1977, Gladys passed peacefully away. It has left a void in my life that can never be filled, but I am thankful that my wife lived and died a Christian, trusting in the Lord’ (104).
Click here for more on Cecil’s childhood, family, and working life.
309 HARWOOD, Cecil George, ‘Down Memory Lane’, TS, pp.104 (c.65,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Harwood, Cecil. ‘Down Memory Lane.’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:309. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10964
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies. 30:3 (Spring, 1987). 335-363.
- The School, Ayot St Peter: Hertsmemories.org.uk
- The Postman: Postalmuseum.org
- River Seine: Mcmahanphoto.com