Leaving a place I’ve come to know and call home always fills me with feelings of anxiety. Yet, in leaving my rented flat in Cambridge after three years I am doing precisely that, and leaving behind another small group of good friends.
Standing on the gravel outside the flat’s patio doors so as not to drop the crumbs of chocolate digestives that ‘needed’ finishing on the newly-vacuumed floor inside (all the crockery was already packed) I realised I maybe hadn’t made the most of Cambridge. I hadn’t taken advantage of all there was to offer, perhaps. All too often I’d let fear stop me taking a risk and doing something novel. I hadn’t explored the river or the nearby country enough. I hadn’t spent enough time on the grass outside the flat with the patio doors open enjoying the summers. I hadn’t, in short, spent enough time choosing to make my life more like I would like it to be.
For better or worse, I had that option. Others, at various points in our history, hadn’t. They have had little choice but to do what was expected of them. Some of my relatives were like this, putting aside their own lives, not seeing their loved ones for years at a time, in the conscripted service of their country.
My great uncle was a prime example. In December 1940, like most men of his generation, and in his early thirties like I am now, he was conscripted into the British military. And like so many of those men, he didn’t speak of the five years he was away from his wife and home playing his small part in the Second World War.
However, he did leave an album of postcards he collected during the time, and photographs he took of the people, places, and railways he refurbished as a Royal Engineer.
Come the weekend, I am hoping to follow his trail across North Africa, along the railway lines of Algeria and then Tunisia, behind the lines of World War Two. It is the first leg of a journey that will also take in Italy, Slovenia, and his return journey to the UK via war-torn Austria, Germany and France. While doing so, as much as possible I will be retaking his photographs and rediscovering not only his unspoken-of story but also the story of the men like him who are no longer here to tell their own astonishing tales.
I hope that the five month journey (and preceding months of archive research) will come to comprise my second travelogue. And so it’s time to pull out the rucksack once again and get packing.