There are always at least two sides to every story, and usually many more. As historians, we do our best to take all the evidence into account, and tend to rely more on first-person eye-witness accounts than on secondary sources. But I have recently been personally involved in historical eye-witness accounts, and I’m here to tell you that even they are not 100% reliable.
Now, I know you knew that already. But it bears repeating. Eye-witnesses are always biased, and always have some kind of agenda (however innocent or benevolent that agenda may be).
What am I going on about, you may wonder? Simply this: My father has recently had the first volume of his memoirs published. More Sherlock Holmes than James Herriot: the Veterinary Detectives takes the reader from his childhood in the Blitz, through Veterinary school, and off to Kenya (where photo of my Mum holding the baby leopard was taken), Nigeria, the 1967 Foot and Mouth outbreak in the UK, [me being born in 1973 gets about 2 lines] Argentina, and Botswana. It is a really odd feeling to read the parents-eye view of events that I actually recall, and to find out so much more about the various grown-ups in my childhood; I had no idea that so-and-so was a vet, no idea that this other tall person was a senior government minister, and so on. Grown-ups were either cool (played with us) or boring (didn’t play with us). It makes me wonder what my kids are thinking and absorbing as a steady stream of world-class HEMA instructors come and go from our home.
And it is also interesting to note that there are stated facts that are clearly incorrect, and stories in which the best bits are missing. From my perspective, anyway. Take for instance the trip to Ghanzi, in Botswana, where the President, Sir Quett Masire, has his farm. My father mentions that Richard (my big brother) and I both arrived from boarding school in the UK, and as we set foot in the Gaberone airport, we went straight onto the Botswana equivalent of Air Force One (a noisy military propellor aeroplane), because we were being given a lift up to Ghanzi by the Masire family. So far so good.
I have always been very susceptible to travel sickness. And Lady Masire was very nice about it when I threw up in her lap. Does that get a mention? No. He says:
“Mrs Gladys Masire was kind to them during the flight, giving them fizzy drinks and sandwiches.”
Which is true, but leaves a lot out.
And she was even nicer about it when at lunch a few days later, Richard opened a bottle of Sprite that had clearly been shaken by someone beforehand, and poor Lady Masire got another Windsor dousing. Upon which subject Windsor senior is silent, though he does go into detail about the cattle he was treating. And he mentions the infamous breakfast incident. I’ll give you his version, then mine:
“Guy had distinguished himself that morning: he had woken long before Richard and went into the kitchen to find the president at breakfast and was invited to join him. To his horror Guy found out that it was grilled liver on the menu, which was a dish he could not abide. To his credit he managed to eat it all and even gave the impression of enjoyment. He was definitely born to be a diplomat.”
Hmmm. As I recall it, Richard was already up and out, and I was late getting up. I was hanging around in the garden behind the kitchen, for no real reason, when Lady Masire came out and asked me if I’d had breakfast. I said no, so she sent me into the sitting room, where to my surprise I saw the President sat on the sofa. I sat opposite him, we chatted about this and that, and then breakfast was brought in: grilled kidneys. Kidneys, not liver. Of that there can be no possible doubt. They are burned into my mind in all their ammonia-smelling horror. But I did eat it all.
Regular readers of this blog will also almost certainly dispute the notion that I am in any way diplomatic. Perhaps being in the back of a car with a rabid dog in Argentina has something to do with it? What am I on about? You’ll have to read the book to find out. But yes, my sister and I did play with a rabid dog.
Of the many things I learned from reading this book, not least was an idea of what my father actually did for a living (he is retired now); he was at least as much a microbiologist as he was a vet: for instance, he developed the first vaccine for Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia. Want to know what that is, and how the vaccine was invented?
And if you’d like a free copy, I have five copies of the Kindle version to give away in exchange for an honest review. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a) a link to a review that you have written of any other book and b) your promise to review this one, and I’ll email you the file.