CONTENT NOTE: This post contains discussion of suicide.
I have just found out that I have had my abstract below accepted for the Telling Stories: History, Narrative and Fiction conference at Queens University, Belfast in September. I have been thinking about writing about this history for a while – and writing about it creatively – and now seems the time, for various reasons. It’s not easy but the writing about it comes easily, and I’m looking forward to thinking about it alongside my more conventional academic work this summer. It’s still a very sensitive subject so there are no footnotes for you to check, no way for you to check the facts without a lot of digging, as I overlay my own story over many, many others.
In 1939, my great-grandfather drank a bottle of weedkiller in his shed. Due to the stigma surrounding suicide, this was a family secret until the mid-1990s when my father broke down while watching the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth. The story he told me was compelling, especially as I had recently memorized Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in my English Literature class. Having served as a young man in the First World War, his grandfather returned a broken man and, on the eve of another global catastrophe, ended his life. Around this time, my father had the only surviving photograph of my great-grandfather – a boy in an army uniform – restored and enlarged: his image was rehabilitated and placed on the mantlepiece.
As time went on, this story nagged away at me. It was not that I disbelieved the explanation but that it seemed too neat. After years of telling myself that I was not interested in family history, I found myself on a database searching for the documents of my great-grandfather’s life and death. Within seconds, I found the report of the inquest in the Manchester Evening News, headlined ‘TRAM DRIVER FEARED BUS CHANGE OVER’. My great-grandmother testified that they ‘had been married 19 years and her husband had always worked for the Corporation Transport department. He was made a tramcar driver about four years ago. He did not like the idea of tramcars being replaced by buses and had become very depressed about it.’
This new knowledge felt shameful: I did not tell my father. The image of a man not eating for days as he frantically read a book titled How to Drive a Motorcar wasn’t the right kind of tragedy. You couldn’t imagine the scene fading into a field of poppies. Yet, this was the reality of the 1920s and 1930s: not only trenches but trams and trolleybuses. This paper will use this newspaper page as a creative starting point for writing about the context of my great-grandfather’s mental breakdown in the aftermath of my own, and will explore the ethics – but also the benefits – of exploration over explanation when grasping at historical experience.