On bearing witness to social change

It’s easy to look ahead – to the next task, meal, commute; the next week, month or year in our lives. Things to do, commitments to honour. Sometimes, perhaps, we think in a longer time-frame – our retirement options, perhaps, how we might afford to send our children to Uni or whether we’ll leave the world inhabitable for their children. It’s not often we look back, reflect on distance travelled, on experiences had, choices made or losses felt, beyond maybe a quick end of year review. How often do we look back further, charting our own life course and the parallel of society?

Do we spend more time thinking about and, in many cases, predicting the types of events and change we might see and experience over the next century as opposed to thinking about those that have transpired during the last one? If we don’t regularly take time to look back, to seek to understand our individual and collective history, the lessons of that history may be lost or, at best, forgotten. And Wynne Fletcher, my nan, ws one of those people who helped me understand how much times have changed. In November 2019 she passed away peacefully in her sleep, well into her 100th year and, for her, frustratingly short of her ‘telegram from the queen’ moment. 

Through her 99 years Wynne bore witness to massive social and technological change, experiencing its impact first hand. Wynne was born into a world we can barely recognise, in a house with an outside toilet, in a world of silent movies, where most women didn’t have a vote and couldn’t open a bank account in their own name, and where in the US you couldn’t even buy a drink. Lloyd George was Prime Minister and Lenin was in charge in post-revolutionary Moscow. Wyatt Earp was still alive (I do love a good western) and the roaring twenties were just beginning. Three personal examples stood out for me. 

In 1932, aged 12, Wynne’s parents were victims of a hit and run as they walked home from a friends house, one of the first reported instances of its kind taking place on a new type of road, a dual carriageway. Such was the impact of the collision that the car carried her dad over 100 yards down the road; they were separately admitted and for hours the hospital didn’t realise her Mum and Dad were victims of the same incident. Wynne’s Dad was killed and her Mum, it was feared, would never walk again. Having no family income or adult to look after Wynne and her four siblings, they were dispersed to live with wider family members; being the first incident of its kind, the perpetrator wasn’t brought to justice.  

In the early stages of World War II, women were recruited into the Women’s Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Wynne, being good with numbers, was trained as wireless mechanic, ready to service and repair the navigation and communication equipment on board the bombers flying over Germany. Reporting to a Lincolnshire airbase she was immediately dispatched to the secretarial office, because that’s where the women worked, according to her station commander, who could not enetertain the idea that a woman could do a man’s job. It was weeks later, and after – I suspect – much skulduggery and stubbornness – that Wynne was able to prove her worth working with the pilots and navigators on the planes and escape the typing pool. Indeed, she used to ‘grab a lift’ down to London for the weekend on board, or join the crew for a sortie over Germany. Some of her vivid memories included standing on top of buildings in Millbank, central London, watching the bombs fall in the blitz.  

In 1966 her husband, Roland, was drinking a cup of tea on a Saturday morning when he complained of feeling a little odd. Not having a phone in the house, Wynne headed to a neighbours house, who called the local GP, who in turn called for an ambulance. Roland had had a heart attack and died before he could be tended to in hospital, leaving Wynne with two children aged 16 and 6 and no income beyond her widow’s pension. In typical fashion she secured a job as a teacher in a village school that was a teacher short, quickly becoming a valued member of the team whilst completing her training. In today’s world, of course, this is an incident you are much more likely to survive. 

I’m left reflecting on the personal nature of progress and change. These individual stories are a vital piece of our collective narrative. They help us record and hold on to the change that has happened and its human benefits and costs; perhaps, too, helping us as a society from going back down some dark avenues. 

I find it difficult to comprehend a life that can bear witness to so many monumental and profound changes in the world and in society and to have directly experienced the impact they have had. We often talk about how social change happens, as though we can in some way seed, steer or influence it. Yet sometimes it is more like the analogy of the fish on being asked what water is. It’s your normal. Some things happen and you have no choice but to find a way through, to respond as best you can. Some things change, and only with hindsight can we tell what the human impact was. 

We must value those who bear witness to such change, who were there, who can tell a part of our collective story, who by doing so are able to illustrate the distance travelled. And I’m left reflecting on some deeply personal memories, too, because as I sat with Wynne a few months ago she implored me with the wisdom of ages: “whatever happens, you might as well smile and have a laugh, because you’ll be a long time dead”. Despite experiencing deep personal and social adversity, tragedy, uncertainly and change at crucial points in her life Wynne was never without a smile and a laugh, never said an ill word to anyone, and never failed to see the funny side of any situation. 

And so another angel gets it wings and society loses one more soul, weakening by one our collective ties to a past we should always work hard to engage with and remember. 

This is based on the eulogy that I gave at Nan’s funeral.

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