Harold Gill (1919-2003): Purpose and Audience

Gagnier writes that ‘Most working class autobiographies begin not with a family lineage or a birthdate but rather with an apology for their author’s ordinariness, encoded in titles like One of the Multitude (1911) by George Acorn’ (338). Harold Gill’s memoir undoubtedly plays up to this stereotype through it’s opening line: ‘This is an attempt by an amateur to write something a little more lengthy than the few verses or poems I have, so far been capable of’ (Pg.1). Harold is a heroic war veteran, yet his memoir is modest and humble throughout. He is clearly proud of his working class roots, as his memoir makes constant reference to them: ‘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’ (Pg.3). Hackett suggests that this sense of pride is common in working class autobiographies like Harolds: ‘they insisted on identifying themselves as members of the working class, no matter what later success or wealth they enjoyed’ (209).

Working Class Family, Early 1900s.

Harold’s memoir recounts the struggles of working class families in the 20th century, and informs us of the adversity they faced. For instance, ‘I recall frequent trips to a farm owned by P.D. “Josh” Hall, of Weeton pushing a home made truck in company of my brother Vin to collect a hundredweight or 56lbs (dependent of the family finances) of ‘kerr spinks’ or ‘King Edwards’ (Pg.3). Harold’s family relied on ‘home made trucks’ and windfall just to eat. Although it can often be glorified, Harold’s memoir tells us how working class life in the early 1900s was riddled with poverty and destitution.

The opening chapters of Harold’s memoir are dominated by stories about his childhood and family. But as his life progresses and the spectre of war becomes a reality, these memories turn into tales of friendship and wartime camaraderie. His fellow soldiers replace his family, and he reminisces fondly on the brotherly spirit: ‘The boisterousness continued all the way to our intended depot, as the traditional British army humour, in all it’s coarseness asserted itself’ (Pg.21). In war, Harold found self-purpose and his time serving his country signified a journey from boyhood to manhood. Harold writes ‘From the comparative comfort of civilian life, and, for the majority of us, the care of his mother, the 20 year old novitiate soldier found himself a new identity, – a number rather than a name,- and, in this strange gregarious way of life, – a new independence’ (Pg.14).

Smiling Prisoners of War.

Through his telling memoir, Harold informs his audience about the true horrors of World War Two. He provides a first-hand, untainted description of war, free from glorification. For example, ‘We then slept on bamboo rods which hollow centres were soon to be alive, and teeming with bed-bugs. Their sister vermin, lice, allied with them in night attacks’ (Pg.32). It is Harold’s authentic account of war that makes his memoir so valuable. As George Acorn proposes in One of the Multitude, ‘the public will recognise that experiences LIVED, and written down however poorly are of more real value and interest than imaginary fictions beautifully disguised’.

Harold’s experience of war was of course a hugely distressing and devastating one for him. He writes about his capture in Singapore: ‘Heaven, we are told, has many mansions; Hell, too, has variety in all its forms. What happened that day was one of them’ (Pg.20). Perhaps Harold’s memoir is a way of finding closure and dealing with the trauma that war burdened him with.

Works Cited:

Acorn, George. ‘One of the Multitude’. London: W. Heinemann, (1911)

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

Gill, Harold, Untitled, TS, pp.66 (c. 31,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library, July 1987, 2:316

Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography’. 12.3 (1989): 208-226, 210

Images Cited:

Image of ‘Working Class Family, Early 1900s’. Accessed 18.04.19.
https://www.ft.com/content/8f240d68-ca09-11e3-ac05-00144feabdc0

Image of ‘Smiling Prisoners of War’. Accessed 18.04.19.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33931660

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