When I told my grandchildren I’d grown up in Blackham, a village that didn’t have mains drainage or electricity at the time, their first reaction was ‘How did you watch television?’
As I explained that we didn’t have television, and saw the pitying look in their eyes, I realised that I had witnessed the end of a way of life that had disappeared forever and that maybe it would be a good idea to get down on paper the memories of the people who lived through it.
Fortunately my mum and dad, Elsie and Jack Coomber (pictured on their wedding day in 1936), lived into their 90s so I was able to sit down with them and record their stories and you can read most of the result here.
Someone in the village said it would be a good idea if I extended my efforts and wrote a history of the village. No problem, I said. But when I started to do the research, I realised I didn’t have a clue how to go about it.
So I signed up for an online course at Oxford. I was studying again 40 years after leaving school. And studying history, a subject I’d hated at school – all those dates, kings and battles – and abandoned as soon as I was able. But this was local history and it came alive. It was about real people and places and how history had changed everyday lives.
Not only that, with evenings set aside for webchats with fellow students, you felt you got to know them even though they were scattered across the country and in one case, lived in Washington DC. We finally met when we assembled in the awe-inspiring setting of the Sheldonian to collect our certificates, a memorable evening, not least for the fun of trying to guess which personality you had got to know fitted with which face
I was nearly 60 and suddenly hooked on history. I loved the research and my journalism background meant writing essays was no problem. I wanted more.
Fortunately, the tutors at Oxford steered me towards the University of Leeds who then ran a part-time degree course in local and regional history. I couldn’t sign up quickly enough and was fortunate to meet a great bunch of fellow students and to be taught by a series of inspirational tutors, most especially Cyril Pearce, Jonathan Tummons and for the last three years as the University lost faith with local history and taught out the course, the brilliant Alan Petford, a man who just loves sharing his vast knowledge.
So, after a somewhat extended ‘gap year’ between school and uni, and six years part-time study, I finally had my degree.
My life had changed completely. Most of my time is now spent researching local history in some form or other. One of my remaining ambitions is to write a piece of local history that will turn up in a bibliography in 100 years time.
And all because I didn’t have electricity when I was a kid.