Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Who does the research matters

This post is prompted by a detailed examination of the Royal Australian Navy service record of our grandfather Robert Joseph MCALLISTER RAN B3035. But it is not really about his service or even about him. This is about some very uncomfortable questions raised by, and about, the way we do family history.

We have very little personal knowledge of grandfather's war service (1941-46). He did not want to talk about it, and his son was not really interested (at that time). For different reasons, they shared the view that those events happened in another life—so close the door and move on.

Now, with a very different mindset, the next generation struggles to reconstruct a narrative that they did not want to hear when they could have.

What we do have is a digital image of a yellowed index card. On one side it records name, date of birth (a lie), place of birth, next-of-kin (not a lie but disguising a fractured relationship), home port, religion (the customary official fiction), physical description and date of enlistment. If we had such documentary proof concerning someone from the fifth or sixth generation, it would be regarded as pure gold but would its contents be any more accurate.

Is the researcher obliged to preserve the document intact or to annotate this evidence to try to align it with what we regard as the truth? Does it matter if a future descendant interprets the different "address on discharge" to mean that the next-of-kin moved during the war years, rather than the fact that our grandfather would not enter his mother's house?

The reverse of the record card nominally lists in columns: Name of Ship or Depot, Rank or Rating, From, and To. In fact, as the war progressed the structure of the data decays into a jumble of names and dates.

Nevertheless it is possible to piece together the date of transfer from one posting to another and then to use the official RAN history of the ships to determine their location at the time. The resulting chronology can then be laid on a map but does that graphic represent the war experienced by our grandfather?

From the official record; names, places and acronyms that the researcher has no reason to "know" stir long-forgotten memories of fragments of conversation. A more dutiful son might have a rich fund of stories to provide personal context to the bald list of ships, places and dates. A professional researcher might have access to broader official archives giving additional background. This writer finds himself hovering uncomfortably between two stools; wondering whether this might be a more comfortable pastime if the focus was kept on ancestors you had never met.

And that big blank in the middle of the service record? The information that is obscured (or dare one suggest, removed) is consistent with a half-remembered story of secret involvement in a very significant aspect of the war. That tale, or a rumination on why I will not tell that tale, is a task for another day.

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