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There’s nowt so queer as folk (again)

It is a universal given that there are certain types – one might say stereotypes – of executives in all walks of life.

We could all list our own selection and I trust I won’t bore the reader unduly by offering a version of mine as an opening gambit:

*the unrestrainable and supremely egotistical CEO;

*the ‘Captain Mainwaring’-like pompous, vain, mediocre, martinet middle-manager;

*the veteran departmental manager who knows everything about their area of expertise but won’t share it with anyone in case, by doing so, they reveal how straightforward it all is and thereby how easy it would be for them to be replaced;

*the know-it-all busybody and gossip who cannot be trusted with confidential information (unless, that is you want certain rumours to spread);


*the nervy, time-serving, middle-manager who is probably far better than they realise but suffers from a pathological fear of taking responsibility which compels them to refer every possible decision at least one – if not two – rungs higher up the food chain.

Earlier this week, further to my own hobby of Crimean War to First World War research, I undertook a journey to a far-flung corner of the country in order to meet with someone whose expertise had been recommended to me by a mutually acquaintance.

You know how it goes.

You are thrown together at a social function, or in a touring group, with someone that you have never come across before, and – over the course of time – the pair of you chat about life, family ‘and cabbages and kings’ and gradually, via trial and happenchance, your relationship evolves to unearth mutual areas of expertise and/or interest.

Sometimes both of you are so relaxed and enthusiastic as individuals that you are instinctively ‘on the same page’ – but sometimes, to one degree or another, you suspect you can detect a competitive edge (even to the extent of an undercurrent of desired ‘one-upmanship’) on the part of your fellow conversationalist.

Last year I had occasion to meet one such gent through mutual friends.

I don’t mind admitting that in many areas of mutual interest he had a far superior expertise to mine, not least because for many years he had been a semi-professional living as a lecturer and guide specialising in them. Nevertheless, we got on well and have kept in touch ever since.

Recently he contacted me about one of my ‘pet subjects’ in which he had only a passing interest and explained that one of his acquaintances [let me call him ‘A’ here for ease of reference] was an expert in one aspect of it and – if I wished to follow the lead – he could certainly recommend that I contact A to ‘see where it goes’.

This I duly did.

Our early contacts were by email and phone. My first impressions were that A was indeed a man for detail and methodical research. This was potentially a huge plus because his expertise was in a unit about which I knew a fair amount but relatively little about particular soldiers of interest to me.

Hence our meeting a fortnight or so ago arranged over a month before.

As for ‘types’ in military research, they tend to vary from those who know so much that they have no qualms about sharing their knowledge to those who are more guarded and wary of doing so to the point of the competitive edge to which I referred earlier.

Immediately we met it became apparent that A was hewn of the latter stone. He was reserved almost to the extent of being offhand. He was at great pains to emphasise the extent of his expertise gained over thirty years of research which he laid out for me in a vaguely condescending tone before we got down to business.

Once we did so my impression grew that my odyssey that day – almost four hours of travel on my part to get there – was going to be a waste of time.

This is in the nature of military research: when you are following new leads, until you actually arrive you have no idea whether what you have discovered is a veritable tomb of Tutankhamun or just a hole in the ground full of sand.

A’s body of work was undeniable extensive but his detail decidedly average.

Let me expand upon that.

We’re back to the theme that ‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, rightly or wrongly, A was under the impression that in our case he was the one-eyed man. (Or even the two-eyed one).

As he guided me around his Cathedral-sized mine of detail – detouring here and there to show me esoteric tributaries to our main subject at hand – he did so in the manner of a semi-bored university professor dealing with an ‘O’ level student.

The bald truth is, when it comes to military research, I am a mere enthusiastic amateur and retain a constant – one might say healthy – humility in the company of those who have made it their passion.

I am after ‘the story’ – and not so much interested in the last knockings of the military sum of human knowledge, still less the mysteries of the universe.

[Here I must ask my readers to discount for my own personal ‘competitive edge’]. The fact is that the bulk of the body of work that A had amassed over three decades was little more than these days is available in the public domain, or internet newspaper or genealogy websites and/or even in censuses and birth/death/shipping/airline registers.

On many of the soldiers he was placing before me with great ceremony I actually had more detail than he did. A session that – had it been of amazing revelatory discoveries – might have lasted a whole afternoon was effectively over in just fifty-five minutes.

My private, unrevealed to him, coup de grace came at the point in proceedings when A came to a specific solider – on whom he clearly had little detail or knowledge – and asked airily whether I had anything on him myself.

In response I leaned over to my satchel and drew from its depths a pristine copy of my biography of him.


About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts