Private Eye editor and satirist Ian Hislop says he’s “orphaned” from his own family history. His father, globetrotting civil engineer David, died when Ian was just 12 and he lost his mother, Helen, at a comparatively young age too.
“We all point the camera at our children,” Ian says after watching some old home movies of his early ex-pat childhood. But maybe, he suggests, that’s getting things the wrong way round because eventually it’s the children who need to be reminded of their parents.
For Ian, his route to reconnecting with his family is through his paternal and maternal grandfathers, neither of whom he knew. Ian begins his research in Jersey, where his mother’s father, William Beddows (1877-1848), spent his final years. William and Helen were unlucky enough to be living on the island in July 1940, when the Nazis invaded.
“The adults look worried, unconfident,” says Ian as he looks at pictures taken for compulsory registration cards. Other photographs from the era are the stuff of nightmares: a German solider pictured with a British bobby, a decorative flowerbed where the plants make a swastika. Meeting his mother’s friends, Ian hears of their “frustration” over the five-year occupation. He’s also impressed by their fortitude and wonders aloud if he would have coped so well.
To trace his paternal grandfather, David Murdoch Hislop (1889-1857), Ian heads north to Ayr. There he meets Betty, whose own father was David’s best friend. Gradually, a picture of David begins to emerge. A teacher who rose to become a headmaster, he was heavily involved with the local Presbyterian Church. He was a stern man who certainly wouldn’t have approved if he had known the church where he was deacon would later be converted into a pub.
A history of conflict
Yet teaching was David’s second profession. Earlier in his life, he was a soldier with the Ninth Highland Light Infantry during the First World War. His service records were destroyed in the Blitz, but Ian is still able to get some idea of what he must have gone through by visiting France. Near Clary, he follows an account of the advance at Targelle Ravine in September 1918 when the Ninth courageously took German positions before being forced to retreat.
William Beddows fought too, but in an earlier conflict, the Boer War. As a member of the Royal Lancaster Regiment, he saw action at the Battle of Spion Kop, when around 350 British soldiers lost their lives, pinned down atop a hill. Foreshadowing the European conflict that would follow, the British tried to shelter from fire in a shallow trench. Ironically, both sides eventually retreated.
Seeing Spion Kop for himself, Ian reflects on his childhood fascination with the conflict. At boarding school, this relatively privileged son of the post-colonial era wrote a project about the Boer War, which he quotes from freely and which seems absurdly romantic.
In South Africa, Ian also learns that he has more connections with South Africa. His great-great-great grandfather, Murdo Matheson, was a soldier who served with the 78th Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders and among British soldiers sent to wrest Cape Town and Southern Africa from Dutch control in 1795.
It was a long journey, because Murdo was originally from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. After a curry at a Stornoway balti house (Murdo went on to India after South Africa as British expansionism continued), Ian finds himself standing in the middle of a circle of stones, the site of his “ancestral home”. It’s a bleak but beautiful place and the rain lashes down.
“I want to leave,” jokes a bedraggled and windswept Ian, “but then that’s in the spirit of what I’ve discovered I think.”