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quotes
Compiled by Dave English

As a piece of applied science the aeroplane has a place alongside the wheel, gunpowder, the printing press and the steam engine as one of the great levers of change in world history. The effect of aircraft on the way we live has been profound: they have shrunk the world, mingling previously isolated cultures, they have added a menacing dimension to warfare, spawned new technologies, created new economic zones and given us a toehold in Space.

— Ivan Rendall, first paragraph of the introduction, Reaching for the Skies, 1988.
 
Ivan Rendall during RAF
pilot training, 1968

 

 

Welcome to my Home Page.

This website is about me. I find writing about myself difficult. However, if you want to be a full-time writer, and I do, and you don't have an on-line alter ego, then you are doomed to live in a literary limbo or you may already be stumbling towards the underworld.

Ivan Rendall
Ivan Rendall: 'selfie' 2013.
 
Here goes. I've worked in television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and photography; I have written several books, including a few best-sellers, and I've written some poetry. I've interpreted people and events from warfare to live music and from homelessness to the Royal Family. I've worked for broadcasters and publishers and always tried to please their audiences and readers, in Britain and abroad. I'm sixty-seven. I want to be a full-time writer now because four decades of producing, narrating, writing and travelling has left me with a bucketful of ideas about where, why and how the world has changed and where, why and how many things have stayed the same.

 

  • Events
My first brush with global change came in April 1962. I was fourteen and on a school exchange with a family in Berlin. The Berlin Wall had been built the previous August and I'd seen it from the West including the flowers and crude wooden crosses placed where people had been shot dead trying to escape from the East. I also discovered from my German hosts that while they could not cross the wall, I could because I had a British passport.

So I did, on a bus with other British and American visitors. I talked to carefully selected East Germans in schoolboy German. I took photographs of antiseptically clean East Berlin with its somewhat deserted streets which lacked the hedonism and urgent bustle of West Berlin. Back in the West, the bus driver took us via the ruins of the Reichstag and Hitler's bunker where men were erecting a hoarding facing the East using six-foot high letters to spell out the difference between the two systems: "Freiheit Kennt Keine Mauer" (Freedom Knows No Wall).
berlin1       berlin2       berlin5
Freedom Knows No Wall: schoolboy efforts in Berlin April 1962

 

That night I related the experience in a long letter to my parents. They were apoplectic, clearly believing I could have been whisked off to the gulag. However, for me, the trip across the walled city, "behind the Iron Curtain", the gun-toting guards, Checkpoint Charlie, the piles of rubble and bombed out churches preserved to remember the dead of the Second World War, standing where Hitler had died, gave me a taste for getting close to the centre of historical, international events. I enjoyed the stark symbolism of competing political ideas cast in concrete; I enjoyed feeling the physical clash between tyranny and freedom.

 

I went back to Berlin in 1985 to make a film about the British army. I travelled in a sealed army train which stopped at every station for officials, guarded by huge Red Army soldiers, to inspect my papers. A year later, on a snowy night, I photographed the Russian human rights campaigner Anatoly Sharansky, and three Western spies, as they were swapped for Karl Koechner and four Eastern spies, reinforcing my sense that Berlin was a place where real history happened. However, I missed the main event: the destruction of the wall in 1989. I did not see the people hacking at the colourful graffiti while the guards looked on. It was the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new age, of change, internationally, politically and economically. The difference between 1962 and 1989 was that I didn't have to be there to believe it and understand it. I could watch it on television.

The greatest changes of the 1990s were arguably cultural: people were able to swap thoughts and ideas unimpeded by walls. Ironically, they did so using technologies first developed to fight the Cold War and for the Space Race. Digital systems transformed the creative industries in which I worked. The separate disciplines of television, newspaper, magazine and book publishing, music and other media which had developed separately, each with their own culture, began to meld into each other; I had a ringside seat as computers blurred the lines between them. I saw them evolve into the beginnings of a single, integrated circus of internet delights, a vast, digital, information and entertainment machine that energised lives and ideas, a machine fuelled by ever greater awareness of people, texts, events and landscape and how they interacted with each other and were connected to history.

The intrusion of technology into history had been going on in Britain at least since the Coronation of our present Queen. My family did not have a TV in 1953 but I remember standing to attention with my father and brother in a neighbour's house during the event, as if I was actually in Westminster Abbey. Variations on that theme took place in most homes that had a television; now it's history. Walking on the moon was the future then; now it's history too. When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins returned from the moon and went into quarantine, they spent part of their time watching recordings of what they had done and the scenes of excitement, celebration and earnest discussion that was the reaction on Earth. Moved by it, Buzz Aldrin pointed to the screen and said: "Hey Neil, look at that, I guess we just missed the whole darn thing."

Today, the idea that nothing has really happened unless it has happened on television has taken a firm hold of our historical imagination. In the last twenty years, the same thing has happened with the web, posing a new existential question: does something exist if it's not on the web?

We can only guess where this powerful machine is taking us. It has already begun to synthesise individual cultures and beliefs as creative ideas and national treasures mingle in one, global, cultural parliament. We can be sure of one thing: the future will be forged where new ideas clash with the past to produce history, and history is an essential tool of human survival, as important as all the sciences. Getting to the future depends on understanding narrative history and shaping new big ideas based on facts rather than on abstractions.

The last decade has seen an increase in our appetite for television and online history, and the closer that history is to us personally, the better. Kings and Queens, life in great houses, the workhouse, injustice and crime still attract audiences in millions. But the internet has put every family alongside the Great, the Good and the Notorious: online genealogy has become a national passion precisely because it is a great equaliser. It is the perfect tool for family historians who want the facts, and the context, of their ancestors' lives. In doing so, they are putting their forebears back into history. After all: if it's not on TV or now, not on the internet too, it never happened!

 

  • People
The internet has lifted millions of ancestors out of obscurity, filling cracks and holes in history with real people. In my case it has, among others, given me a new and intimate portrait of my maternal grandmother. She died in 1956 when I was nine. I called her Nan-Nan.
She was small, tough and strict, but even as a young boy I could sense that outside her immediate family she was pathologically shy and uncommunicative. It was nearly always summer when we visited her, and they were happy, sunny times. However, the strongest sense I took home after the holidays was of a sad woman. My mother gave me scraps of information about her but it wasn't until I researched the detail of my extended family online, that I began to understand the conspiracy of events that had made her sadness so profound.

Nan-Nan was a Creole, the second daughter of Granny Caroline whose family had settled in Jamaica in the seventeenth century. Her father, Lionel, was the second son of an English baronet. He was a civil engineer and built railways in Africa, South America and the West Indies before marrying Caroline in Jamaica, They had four daughters and a son. Lionel died when Nan-Nan was six. Her family was split up: she and her elder sister Katherine were sent to England to live as semi-orphans, thousands of miles from their mother and younger siblings. They were brought up at Thirkleby, one of the great houses of Yorkshire, under the rod of an unusually strict and instinctively aristocratic Granny Frankland, her baronet son Ralph, and alongside her Eton-educated cousin, William.

Nan-Nan lived with her ferocious granny even when the old lady retired to Hove where she died in 1913. nan

Blushing Bride: Nan-Nan and Doody
Jamaica, 4th August 1913
 
Nan-Nan had been educated as marriage fodder but remained unmarried at 27 when she sailed to Jamaica to see her mother the same year. However, on the steamship she met a gentle and adoring Indian Army officer, William, a second generation Creole himself. He was on long leave from Bangalore and going visit his father who still ran several family estates in Jamaica. Nan-Nan's formal chaperone sensed where her real duty lay: to encourage the romance rather than police it. Within two months Nan-Nan and William were married in Spanish Town, the start of a long, devoted marriage. My grandfather became Doody abbreviated from Daddy by Anne, their first child, born in 1914.
The impact of the Great War on Nan-Nan was profound, but without the internet, it could have stayed hidden; they never spoke about the war which started two days before their first wedding anniversary. Six weeks later the first family casualty came at the Battle of the Aisne: her cousin William, practically a brother, was reported missing believed dead and never found. His mother destroyed every portrait and photograph of him. A month later her cousin Philip was killed at the First Battle of Ypres, less than 24 hours after arriving at The Front.

And so it continued for four years: Nan-Nan's brother, Maurice, died leading Grenadier Guards uphill against machine guns on the Somme, Doody's brother, Percy, was captured in the German Offensive of 1918 and died of wounds as a prisoner of war. Her Jamaican cousins Charles, Ronald and Reginald, and Doody's British and Australian cousins Andrew, Ralph, Noel and Owen were all killed.

Nan-Nan and Doody had moved from Bangalore to Quetta on the Northwest Frontier nan
Nan-Nan's War: with her son, William
India, 1918 (note how her face
reveals the strain of sadness).
 
where Doody was an instructor at the Indian Army Officer Training School where my mother was born in 1916. Days after her birth, Doody was sent to Mesopotamia where he led the engineers who bridged the River Tigris just south of Baghdad. In the process he was wounded in the legs, the groin and abdomen and spent a year in India recuperating. In France, Nan-Nan's brother-in-law, Harold, who was married to Olive, her younger sister, was wounded in almost exactly the same way. Two more of Doody's cousins, William and Hugh, were less severely wounded in the arm and hand.

The physical and mental effects of wounds and death continued after the war. Nan-Nan's sister, Katherine, who had nursed British soldiers in Salonika, died of TB in 1920. Their cousin, another Reginald, had also contracted TB fighting in Macedonia; he married but died a year later. Another cousin, Robert, contracted meningitis in the trenches leaving him totally deaf; he was invalided out of the army. Another, Lionel, an ambulance driver, died young in Canada in 1926, having suffered from a nervous disease. Her uncle and surrogate father, Ralph, died in 1916, heartbroken, as did his brother a week later. Doody's mother, Agnes, whom Nan-Nan hardly knew because of the war, died in 1919, a year after her son Percy died. One of Doody's cousins, Marcel, a vicar who had volunteered in 1914 at the age of fifty-two, had a nervous breakdown.

Nan-Nan did not come from an army family yet her Jamaican family, her grand family and her husband's family all had been cut to pieces by war. Twelve of Nan-Nan's close male relations had died in brutal and untimely ways, most of them unmarried and under 30. nan
Happier Times:
Nan-Nan with grandchild 1953.
 
Others died of disease contracted as a direct result of the war. Her husband's and brother-in-law's injuries left them both with permanent limps. Five of their cousins were wounded physically or mentally. Her children were shorn of uncles. Thirkleby was demolished in 1926.

The world changed: the airs and graces she had learned from Granny Frankland were obsolete in the amoral, post-war society. She followed Doody's career when he transferred to the British Army in 1920 though she could not bear to live on army camps so their four children grew up in rented, albeit rather grand, houses. She drove her own pony and trap when shopping but never learned to cook. She was a Christian but she held on to the dark superstitions of Jamaica's folk religion, obeah, which she had absorbed as a small child. She was torn between loyalty to her Creole roots and obedience to her grand family which had plucked her from her mother.

She coped. Unlike millions of people who had been touched by the war, she was financially secure, indeed very secure given the bittersweet fact that she and Doody inherited greater wealth than they might have anticipated because the war had killed so many male heirs. How could she not have the deep underlying and ineradicable sadness? It had permeated deeply into the emotional certainties of the idea of the families she loved. I still feel Nan-Nan's sadness, the more so since I have researched her extended family which I could not have done without the internet. I hope I've made her part of history.

I am writing this home page at home, at the kitchen table to be precise. I share the table and the home with my wife, several cats, and four chickens (though they live outside.) It is a second home to three children and four grandchildren. We live in the country; we live in a landscape. Like all landscapes it has a history, and much of that has been uncovered in the last twenty years by diligent, amateur researchers in on-line archives.

 

  • Landscapes
Looking out of the kitchen window I can see our Green, about an acre of long grass and knapweed, teeming with insects, a timeless hunting ground for swallows and swifts. It was established by Anglo-Saxon kings as a place for drovers to stand, graze and water cattle overnight. It has hardly changed in 1200 years. The water came from a well just outside my kitchen door. The hedges and single-track roads which define it are clearly ancient but contemporary documents, now line, coupled with the topography and place names back it up. On the far side of the Green is Dead Field, part of a grazing enclosure surrounded by a ditch in 1359. The enclosure includes a wood on the far side of which is almost certainly a Neolithic pathway that runs along a low ridge that protects the five houses which cluster around the Green from north winds and is also an ancient parish boundary.

My wife, Heather, discovered a feral apple in a hedge not far from the Green. It does appear on the Defra website, has been named locally, the Wichenford Wonder, and been grafted on to new rootstock, resurrected from obscurity and now integrated into the history of our landscape and is destined for a local website. apple
Wichenford Wonder:
feral apple in a landscape.
 
It will shortly be linked to other sites, building the network of local history and apple websites.

The house was built as a barn in the seventeenth century. It has given up some of its secrets by digging in the fields: finds include dozens of clay pipes, a William & Mary halfpenny and shards of slipware pottery that fit together into parts of a bowl. It was converted into a home in 1838. In 1892, the owner bought five acres of land and planted an orchard. In 1910, he opened a shop in the front room which also housed the Post Office. Our public services today are thin: a fire hydrant, a post box marked EIIR, and two Parish Council notice boards. Our natural amenities are more plentiful: from the front of the house you can see a ridge in the Cotswolds, about thirty miles away across a landscape of ancient trees and even more ancient fields, all full of history. Like all landscapes it has meaning and poetry, flowing with changing and unchanging ideas and facts, all full of history.

This website is about history on line and the new perspectives it gives. It covers landscape and events but above all it is about people and families, how they lived and what they did. In 1983 I worked on a television series for the BBC called Soldiers, a History of Men in Battle. It was presented by Frederick Forsythe and written by two military historians: John Keegan and Richard Holmes. They all did a great job but the stars were the old soldiers who spoke directly to the audience with all the authority of eyewitnesses and their personal experience on the battlefield. People put history in context and context makes history out of people. It is a virtuous circle. But I wish we had had the means to research them on line too. Computers are reshaping the way we live, the way we see other people, our whole lives. So the internet inevitably reshapes history at the same time, by embedding more and more people's lives into a broader, deeper, human narrative.

We are not just digitising the past, making it instantly accessible, we are looking at history differently. Only a few years ago, it took months to research the archives for information on events, landscape and people. Today, it takes only a few hours to achieve the same, or greater, result. But crucially, the sources can be cross referred globally as well all without touching the original letters, diaries and photographs which are consequently better preserved. But arguably the biggest difference the internet has made to history is that the millions of records it delivers into the home are generated through detail, from the bottom up: small facts about people, things and how they interacted. Merging that detail into the historical record gives it a new perspective and a fresh context.