Yesterday, pursuant to a WW1 project I am researching, I set off shortly before 0600 hours in deep fog to visit one of the great Midland public schools.
Not being familiar with said establishment, I maintained a steady 70mph and relied entirely upon my car’s sat-nav system. This took me up the M1 to Junction 14 (Milton Keynes) and, ultimately, cross-country. I was mildly pleased to be travelling northwards because, even at that time of day, the plight of commuting traffic coming south on the opposite carriageway was horrendous – at one point I passed a snarl-up of approximately eight to nine miles.
Having arrived, I presented myself, was collected from reception by the school archivist and then taken to his den on the upper floor of the school library.
I suspect this is a reflection of my substantial inferiority complex, but I immediately reverted to ‘pupil’ mode, instinctively feeling a far greater affinity with the teenage pupils of both genders then milling about than with my host, whose persona might have been filed under the ‘public school master’ section at MGM’s Central Casting department. As we sat down, I half-expected to receive a dressing-down for some minor misdemeanour and/or be taken through my school report card.
After a brisk introductory chat about my quest, Mr Chips took me on a brief guided tour of the school, founded in this picturesque market town in the 16th Century. As we chatted, I gradually sensed the ‘balance of power’ shifting my way. It dawned upon me that a visit from a semi-serious researcher of a WW1 subject which encompassed an Edwardian alumni of the school might possibly be a source of mild excitement and indeed perhaps a potential topic of conversation later that afternoon in the school’s staff common room.
When we returned to the library, Mr Chips brought out a range of school records from the era concerned, including a ‘punishment book’ in which my target featured (three strokes of the cane for ‘ragging’ and one of six strokes for ‘ragging on Sunday’) and, after he was killed in action in the spring of 1915, a scrapbook presented to the school by his father in his memory. The latter was a gold mine of photographs, records and letters that will take my project significantly forward. Or should, now I have taken relevant copies, once I have had the opportunity to investigate its contents in detail.
I reached the sanctuary of home after an nine-hour round trip, weary but marginally elated by what had been a valuable expedition.
In the scheme of researching WW1 matters – or, I suspect anything historical – progress tends to be snail-like and ‘needle in a haystack’ in nature.
There tends to be a point when people in my position move from the viewpoint that it’s best to assume that every session you undertake will be fruitless (if only to avoid disappointment), to one in which even the fruitless ones can be regarded positively. By which I mean that, even being able to record that you have been down a specific research avenue and found nothing means that, at least, you can enter a cross in the box marked ‘done’ and thereby perhaps press on towards other avenues that might prove more productive.