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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 July, 2004, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
Living memory and the distant past

By Kevin Connolly
BBC correspondent in Ireland

At the time of the D-Day commemorations in June, Kevin Connolly asked BBC radio listeners for their personal links to the past. Your stories made extraordinary reading.

When I wrote a few weeks ago about the anniversary of D-Day, I made the point that World War II - even as we continue to sorrow and to celebrate - is becoming a different kind of history.

Jeanne Calment was 122 when she died in 1997
Guinness World Records authenticated Jeanne Calment as the oldest person ever
It's less and less a story we hear from brothers and fathers who went away to fight or the sisters and aunts and mothers, who drove fire engines and built bombers and darned rationed clothes while they were gone.

Increasingly it is that drier, colder kind of history that comes from textbooks and from re-runs of ageing television documentaries.

The dates and the diplomatic deals and the tallies of the dead are there, of course, but the passion and the pain - which allow us to pick out our own family threads in the tapestry of a great event - well, they are going.


In the course of all this, I happened to mention that I had once met the oldest human who ever lived - a woman called Jeanne Calment from Arles in the south of France.

This is a sign that I am entering what should be called my anecdotage - a stage of life journalists reach where they constantly start referring back to people and places in their past.

There were many noteworthy aspects to Madame Calment's life, of course.

She'd seen them digging the foundations for the Eiffel Tower, for example, and, like all good French citizens, had decided immediately that it would definitely never catch on.

Van Gogh

But it particularly stuck in my mind that she'd met Vincent Van Gogh who spent part of his life in Arles and, whenever I see or read anything about him now, I feel a curious irrational surge of pride to think that I met someone who met him.

Van Gogh self-portrait
Van Gogh went to live in Arles in 1888
It might sound a bit daft but it struck a chord because dozens of people wrote to me, as I asked, to describe similar distant but personal links with history.

My puzzled thanks go to the two people who thought this was a short story competition, especially if they were expecting a prize.

I can also report an urban myth in the making, since several people wrote to me about an interview they thought had been broadcast in the 1970s with someone who met Cardinal Richelieu, the French statesman who died in 1642.

Now by my calculations, even if you - as a newborn baby - met Richelieu on the day of his death, you'd still have been 235-years-old on the day the first sound recording equipment was patented in 1877.

So while - I suppose - you never know, it does seem on balance unlikely.


The question was how far can you go back into history in two steps: eg a great-granny you distantly remember who passed on tales told to her by her own grandmother.

The answer seems to be, more or less, the early years of the 19th Century with one or two stretching back just a little further.

My colleague Allan Little, for example, remembers interviewing an elderly Russian emigree in Broughty Ferry in Scotland who as a child was brought out of revolutionary Archangel by her mother.

She could remember an old family nursemaid whose mother had tended wounded soldiers from Napoleon's Grande Armee in the retreat from Moscow.


There was one listener whose grandfather's great-uncle had served as a master-at-arms in Nelson's navy, and several who offered memories from the 1820s and 1830s.

There were, curiously, a number of direct links with Nelson - usually involving his daughter whom he modestly christened Horatia.

British soldiers in a dramatisation of the Battle of Waterloo
Re-enacting the Battle of Waterloo
Top prize in that section goes to a couple whose wedding in the early 1960s was attended by an elderly relative who was Horatia's god-daughter.

Most of the many letters I received touched on meetings long ago with old people who remembered Waterloo - a reminder of how, until World War I, that battle was remembered as the decisive moment in the saving and making of the nation.


There was a sort of historical dead heat for the longest leap back in time.

One listener's daughter had an elderly music teacher who remembered his grandmother telling first-hand stories of the French Revolution.

Another, in America, recalled a great-grandmother whose own great-grandmother grew up in Tennessee having arrived by boat from Holland, where she had been born in the 1790s.

I hope you're impressed because our shared sense of wonder is the only prize awaiting Tamera Waltman of Michigan and Dr Taylor of Leicestershire.

Having prompted such a fascinating debate, I feel I should end with a sort of confession - especially now that Jeanne Calment is safely in heaven and therefore clearly out of reach of legal advice of any kind.


She told me - and a string of other interviewers - that she knew Van Gogh pretty well, remembering him as an ugly, smelly, bad-tempered drunk.

Over the years, though, I've noticed in the cuttings that the link between the two came originally simply from some sharp-eyed local hack noticing that their dates in Arles overlapped.

In the course of a good many interviews the relationship began to take on a life of its own, in a way that didn't do Vincent any favours - even if he would have appreciated her somewhat impressionistic way with a story.

Now it could be, of course, that Madame Calment's memory just began to improve after she hit 120 but I prefer to see it as a kind of warning not to embellish the truth as I slip further into my anecdotage.

My thanks to all of MY own correspondents - who were factual and fascinating - and, of course, have given me something to tell the grandchildren.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 July, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

A different kind of history
13 Jun 04  |  From Our Own Correspondent


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