My great uncle, Robert Swift, after whom I am partly named, died just over a hundred years ago from the Spanish flu. On the 31st December, 1919 to be precise. He was still in France, serving with a Yorkshire artillery regiment. His wife, Lillian received a certificate with a facsimile signature of the King, commemorating Robert’s service and the nation’s gratitude. I possess this and other relics, including the stiff cardboard tube in which the semi-illuminated scroll was delivered by the then real GPO. It’s always struck me as an evocative artefact, what with the stamps, the postmark, the solid construction of the tube—a rare yet common enough cause of a knock on the door because it wouldn’t go through the letterbox. We’re sending you our gratitude for your husband. In a cardboard tube.
Thankfully (for them), Robert and Lillian were both devout Methodists, so despite the fact that Robert died at age 34 and Lillian at 96, she at least believed that a rendezvous in Heaven was in order—she never let go of the idea and lived a quiet, Queen Victorianesque life of expectation ever since the receipt of that tube. Others had different ideas about how to respond to the horrors of the previous years, and it wasn’t long before the ‘Roaring Twenties’ began. That brief period of light relief of course was not shared by all, the political guff by the name of the ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ had no heroic context for a general strike, and had no regard for the sufferers of wage cuts or widening deprivation.
Looking to the past to seek answers for future turns in history, we ought to reflect on personal histories as well as the grand scope. With all the current bollocks spouted about sacrifice, scientific advice, gratitude for the NHS (a two minute clap once a week with ministers who voted for cuts and opposed pay rises for NHS staff) there is never going to be a substitute for a particular, individual story. Stalin had it right when he said one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.
Despite the fact that I (obviously) never knew Robert my uncle, the current situation we find ourselves in makes me wonder about his death—it may have been a hundred years ago, but maybe it’s because it was a hundred years ago that it deserves to be remembered. One hundred years is no time at all. More and more centeniarans are after all getting their ‘telegrams’ from the Queen, although perhaps not if this government has anything to do with it.