Marian talks to Tom Ambridge whose main career as a research scientist with BT was followed by activities in education, information technology and publishing. His most recent venture, in collaboration with his sister Margaret and other family members, has been the compilation of a book based on the Second World War poetry and diaries of their grandmother, May Hill, complete with many nostalgic photographs.
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Marian introduces the programme by reading the book’s title poem, The Casualties Were Small, in which May expressed anxieties about her son Ron who had joined the RAF, a theme which recurred throughout the diaries. Tom (pictured below with Margaret and May’s daughter Jean) describes how the discovery of May’s writing prompted a project of transcription and research involving an extended family and members of a small village community. The setting was the coastal area of Lincolnshire which, with its RAF airfields, naval bases and billeted soldiers, had much in common with wartime Suffolk.
The programme includes readings of a variety of poems and diary extracts. As well as recording local incidents, including a dramatic attack on the village by enemy aircraft heading for a major target, May had much to say about the wider issues of the war. She was incensed by the tragic bombing of a school; she questioned the bell-pealing celebration of a victory when some families would be mourning losses; she empathised with suffering civilians on the other side in a poem which was a prayer for peace. In addition to eloquence, sensitivity and faith, May had a wonderful sense of humour and a strong spirit, revealed in a description of a visit from a cantankerous aunt and in a heartfelt poem about ‘Council Houses’.
The book has been described as a charming but moving historical record of the times - in favourable feedback from readers of all ages ranging from pensioners whose memories have been stirred, to a French university professor of history and children inspired by school projects. It has been added to the reference collection at the Imperial War Museum, London.
The Casualties Were Small by May Hill, edited by Tom Ambridge and Margaret Ambridge, is available, priced £8.99, from selected outlets. In Woodbridge these include Browsers Bookshop and St Mary’s Church Shop. It can also be ordered (post-free) directly from Tom Ambridge on 01394 385412. Further information, including extracts and readers’ comments, can be found on www.ambridgebooks.co.uk.
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