Those who read this blog regularly will know that I am a historian of ancient Greek and Roman medicine. I sometimes venture into more modern eras, but I don’t have much knowledge of the twentieth century (although I did teach a bit of twentieth-century history in a secondary school for a year). So this post on the second World War is a one off.
Last week marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day. I found the coverage of the events excellent and for some reason it did really struck a chord. It made me really emotional. Usually, my interest in such events is rather detached. This in turn has really made me think about the type of historian I am, because I would say that I usually have quite an emotive link to my subject matter. But then again, I choose my topics of research purposefully. It’s not by chance that I did my BA dissertation on Pythagorean women; my PhD thesis on ancient gynaecology and pharmacology; that when I study ancient plants, I focus mostly on questions of uprooting and transplantation; and that my next big project will be on milk. I have chosen these topics because they talk to me.
I guess you could say I am a post-post-modernist historian: I don’t believe in an ultimate truth; I believe that historians are bound to appropriate the past for themselves, change it with each generation, and develop an intimate relationship with that constructed past. Of course, one needs to keep a certain level of distance, but that will come quite naturally from the time lap. Sounds rather irritating, well I will not deny being at times irritating! Have you ever read David Lodge’s Nice Work (if you haven’t you must). Well, now imagine opinionated, often irritating, but ultimately big-hearted Robyn (Roberta) Penrose without the red curls (mine are light brown) and with a slight French accent, and you won’t be far from imaging me. Heaven forbid I should ever have to shadow anyone as Robyn does with hapless factory managing director Vic (Victor) Wilcox!
To come back to the celebrations of D-Day. Why did I not feel a personal link to those events before now? I believe this is because that past was too close for comfort. It belonged to my grand-parents. What right did I have to feel emotion (apart from pride) over things I did not suffer? That is the message I took from school history lessons and family discussions. So what has changed this time around? I have had children – of course that does change one’s outlook on life. I have grown older. But there is something more: I have moved to Wales. I certainly don’t believe in fate, but there certainly is an uncanny coincidence there.
My grand-father, Fernand Totelin escaped occupied Belgium and participated in the War effort in the UK. As part of the Brigade Piron, he trained somewhere near Tenby, South-West Wales. He did not participate in D-day, as the Belgians did not. On the other hand, he participated in the liberation of the Ardennes and of Liege. That, I gather, was one of the proudest moments of his short life. As you can see, my story is full of gaps. I have no idea how my grand-father reached the UK; with whom he was; and for the life of me, I can never remember what military grade he achieved at the end of the war (I gather it was quite high for his age). I still believe this is not my hi/story to write, but now that I live in Wales and have grown roots there and sown seeds, I feel much closer to this grand-father I have never known.
I wrote this while listening to Leonard Cohen’s version of The/Le Partisan. Listen and you’ll understand the title of this post.