The Wildgoose Chase

I met Chelsea Pensioner Walter Wildgoose in 1977 when he was 87 and I was 26. Through a series of letters written over the last year of his life, he passed along his life story - the workhouse children's home, a life in the British Army witnessing the opening battles of World War I and life in India, a remarkable family surviving the bombs of World War II London. This blog will document my research and progress on the novel I'm writing about this amazing man.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"I am none the worse for it."

What has always fascinated me about Walter was that despite a very rough life, he was never overcome with bitterness or self-pity. His ability to roll with the most difficult of punches and come out the other side kind-hearted and hopeful says so much about the kind of man he was.

Make no mistake, he was no Pollyanna. He was pragmatic and unflappable in the face of a bad turn of events. But never bitter. Never whiny. No "Oh, poor me, haven't I had a hard life?"

But Walter's story is the story of millions of Britain's - or any country's - working-class poor. The people just got on with it. They had to eat, they needed a roof over their heads, they had to raise families, they had to survive, so they did whatever they had to do (in most cases, good hard work) to get what they needed.

For Walter's family, the military was the answer. It provided training, discipline, work, and a steady paycheck. The only time it failed them was when John suffered sunstroke in India, leaving the family to fend for itself. Still, Fred, Bert, and Walter all opted for military service when they came of age. (We don't know what happened to Harry after he ran away from the workhouse children's home. Perhaps he, too, went with the colours.)

The point is that Walter's story isn't out of the ordinary for its place and time. It's just that the story of working-class folks is either highly-romanticized or left out of the mix all together. But I'm lucky to have a first-hand account of someone who helped keep the cogs oiled and turning in what was once the British Empire.

In one of Walter's letters to me, he described how he managed to survive it all. In a word, discipline:

When I was about your age dear, I was on the North West Frontier of India, at the fort of Khyber Pass. This was at the time when there was trouble with Afghanistan but it soon got sorted out. There has been no continuous rounds of leisure in my life, as army life is vastly different to Civil life, and of course there was no money to throw around those days. And we didn’t crave for any frivolity. I have always been subjected to discipline ever since my school days, on the training ship at the sea in the Mercantile Service, in the Army, also during my term as school caretaker. I have always respected authority, and I am none the worse for it.

And yet he had a droll sense of humor and an ever-present twinkle in his eye.
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posted by MaryB @ 1:43 PM  


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