Hazel McHaffie

The 2011 Census

It ought to feel like an auspicious moment in history, but somehow filling in squares with a biro pen, or tapping keys on the computer before despatching data for the 2011 Census into the ether, doesn’t have the aura of ‘momentous’ about it.2011 census form

I couldn’t help comparing my neat sterile form with my grandfather’s entries 100 years ago.1911 census Scratched with a blotchy nibbed pen, mistakes scored out, hardly legible … but so much more evocative of an era. We discovered this gem while doing my mother’s life history a few years ago, and it conjured up amazing pictures of a generation when life was very different indeed.

It’s easy to romanticise the past, but in reality life was hard for many people.My grandparents with some of their family in 1926My grandfather, for example, born in 1874, was orphaned as a small child, and started work at 10 years of age. He and his wife had twelve children, four of whom died in infancy. My mother was the youngest of the twelve, born 25 years after the eldest boy. In spite of the size of the brood and the fact that his wife was a frail woman, my grandfather was a largely absent father – away at the war, or travelling to where work was to be found.

Hard it may have been, but what wonderfully rich seams they’d be to mine for novels! What happened to his parents? How did a ten year old cope with work? What did he get up to away from home so much? Why did he lose touch with his remaining children after his wife’s death? My mother had stories to tell that make my conventional life pale into insignificance. But there was still oodles of room to speculate about the gaps in her knowledge and memory.

Maybe I should change tack and start spinning historical novels! But, of course, the medical ethical dilemmas back then weren’t a patch on those we confront today. Our forebears simply wouldn’t comprehend the astonishing conundrums and questions science and medicine conjure up in this 21st century. Stem cell therapy, legally assisted death, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, cloning, beating-heart organ donation, not to mention modern cures and treatments undreamed off a hundred years ago … they’d recoil in disbelief. No, I’m not going to run out of material any day soon if I stick with this theme.

Thinking of the wealth of history wrapped up in previous generations, though, reminds me of the record of our lives the grandchildren are owed. It’s a task that keeps getting deferred. One of these days it might be too late.

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