Monday, 9 August 2010

Ghent in Wartime

Frank Key of Hooting Yard and our own Key's Cupboard is taking advantage of the wonders of web publishing to post his mother's wartime memoirs in weekly instalments at a blog, Ghent in Wartime:
During the 1980s, my mother [Lydia Brusseel] wrote a memoir of her teenage years in Belgium during World War Two. The first version was written in longhand, and then she bought a typewriter, typed it up, and made copies for her children. As far as I know, she never submitted it for publication. The other day, my brother had a bright idea. Why don’t we publish it on the internet?, he suggested. Although it is not written in diary format, I added my tuppenceworth to the effect that it would lend itself to appearing as a blog...

It contains some memorable anecdotes and observations, which convey very effectively the daily distress of war. They are recounted plainly and without fuss and are quite affecting. This is probably because the events we read about are occurring just a remove or two from ordinary life: it's uncomfortably easy to put ourselves in Lydia's shoes. From last week's, which deals with the family's attempt to flee Ghent for the coast and England:
My young brother was in charge of the dog on a leash. We, the older children carried bags with all the food and drink we could muster together. On the handle of the pram hung wet nappies to dry, washed at the last minute. We must have looked a most bizarre group of travellers. I guess we had walked about half way to the main highway when the baby started to cry. The mother was distressed and insisted we all stop, so she could feed the baby. 
Our little dog had never run very far from home, after going a little further the poor wretch was probably tired, hot and thirsty and had a fit, foaming at the mouth and rolling his eyes. My little brother had hysterics, upset at seeing his pet like this.

But that's not to say one can't learn about the bigger events too. One is given an ongoing account of the response of Ghentish society to military defeat: the suspicions of Germany fed by memories of the previous war (from the week before last); the 'dejected gloom' of the families fleeing for the coast, rapidly turning to 'frozen fear' and then panic when they appear to be strafed; the brave patriotism of Lydia's father and a friend who set off on bikes for the coast to join the Allied armies in England, leaving behind fearful wives and families (how last week's ended). However, it's always grounded in the personal: 'During the following two weeks I saw my mother age about ten years.'

This is the sort of testimony that makes David Kynaston's books on post-war England so compelling. Those familiar with Austerity Britain and Family Britain will recognise this as a strong recommendation.


  1. Terrific stuff. Always the details that get you.

  2. Had the subject been less serious I may have said the road from aches to Ghent.

  3. Wonderful stuff, and Brit is right about the details. They can be more upsetting to us moderns than the actual straffing, etc. For me, one of the most painful and poignant moments was when the two men headed for England to fight and left their families behind, with everybody understanding there would be NO possibility of news or contact, possibly forever. My instinctive thought was "Why couldn't they text?".