I’ve just seen it on the news. Richard Attenborough has died. A long life, nearly 91 years long, marked by a considerable contribution to film and drama, both as an actor and director, I expect that there will be lots of replays of his films, lots of coverage in the newspapers and on the telly. His presence on film punctuates my childhood, from In Which We Serve (rainy Sunday afternoons), through The Great Escape (Christmas), A Bridge Too Far (that seemed to go on for years), Ghandi (Leicester and my granny), Cry Freedom (Paignton and my youth group) to Jurassic Park (university). I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a massive fan or anything, these films sit in the background of far more significant events in my life, but there is a deeper connection between Richard Attenborough and me than I realised until today, and it all comes down to my uncle Ray.
Uncles form a large part of the apocryphal story-telling of my family. There’s Uncle C, an estate agent who used to lunch with H. Samuel back in the ‘30s, Uncle H who, after his divorce had only one plate, one knife, fork and spoon in the house and nobody ever went to visit except for a cup of tea, Uncle S, who left his vest in Spinney Hill Park (now nature reserve), thus forcing my mother to search for it from corner to corner, only to find that he was wearing it after all. He was the one I was convinced knew everything in the known universe, because, when I was five, he was at university and I had somehow connected the two things together. And Uncle Ray, he with the talent for acting, such that he once persuaded his older sisters (my granny and great aunt) that he had fallen down the stairs and broken his leg while they were supposed to be In Charge.
When he grew up a bit he took his talent to the amateur stage, joining the Leicester Drama Society and performing in the Little Theatre, taking on a number of roles in The Taming of the Shrew (judging from the number of photographs of him in costume) in 1939. It must be something that runs in the family, this taking part in productions. For me, my job as a teacher has led me either back stage, or slightly to one side, playing the piano and frowning at front line wrigglers, for him, his involvement has echoed through the generations.
He didn’t, like Richard Attenborough, attend the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts (RADA). He didn’t run the Am Dram society, making sure it entertained the community year on year, its systems running smoothly, like my mum. He didn’t make his career in film and stage, unlike my university compatriot who shall remain nameless (but who was a leading character in Battlestar Gallactica, almost my favourite ever TV series, not that I’m name dropping or anything), not as I did, making an active choice not to chase after fame and fortune in order to devote myself to public service of another kind, but because, by May 1941, at only 20 years old, he was dead.
My granny never talked much about the war to me. I managed to get quite a lot (or what I thought was quite a lot; thinking about it now, she probably employed the same tactics) out of my grandma when she came to stay, with my constant ‘what was it like when you were my age?’ questions, my fascination with the past evident from an early age, but my granny stuck to the same few stories. There was the one about how Cadbury’s chocolate continued to advertise even though you couldn’t buy any, and the one about her boss, who even though petrol was also rationed, always seemed able to get enough to drive to work, and how that destroyed her respect for him. And of course, there was the one about there being no bananas. But when I became an adult, different stories made an appearance, stories that the girl-me wouldn’t have understood.
In 2007 she, like the rest of my family and considerable numbers of my far-flung friends, rang me because my town was unexpectedly under water. She commented on my news that everyone was talking to each other, checking they were OK. It was like that for six years, during the war, she said. And there was the time when my newly wedded husband and I took our respective grandmothers out to lunch. They reminisced, two women, divided by the midlands, and I heard, for the first time, about her cousin, a young man callecdup just before the D-Day landings; he stepped onto a Normandy beach and lost his life, his head blown off, snuffed out in an instant.
She never mentioned her brother’s wartime experience, though. I never heard her long-lived hard note of anger over his fate. I never knew, until today that her younger sister’s house was named after the bay into which the Hurricane he was piloting crashed, according to the letter from his commanding officer, fighting a far superior foe. When she talked about him, it was with great love, great pride. He knew Richard Attenborough, you know. They acted together in the Little Theatre.
I thought of Uncle Ray today, when I heard about Dickie Attenborough. I thought about how differently his life turned out, how, despite his young man’s desire to avoid the fate of Uncle Charlie, dead in the trenches of the First War, found himself equally powerless in the face of circumstance. I thought of how he didn’t go to the Wyggeston Grammar School and on to RADA, but my granny’s son, his nephew, the uncle I met and got to know, a generation later, did.
And I thought about how, with all our ante-natal testing and choices, we have given ourselves the idea that we are, somehow, masters of our own fate. How differently Ray’s life might have turned out, if only we were.