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Interview – Tom Ambridge of May Hill’s WWII Diaries

may hills wwii diaries

[Editor’s Note: if you are like me, you’ve become hooked on some of the World War II diary blogs such as May Hill’s World War II Diaries. In this interview, Tom Ambridge of Ambridge Books tells us more about his grandmother’s diaries and how they not only spawned a blog but an entire business!]

May Hill’s WWII Diaries are fascinating. How were they discovered and when?

Some “exercise books” containing diary entries were in the possession of May’s younger daughter Jean whose son took an interest about ten years ago and decided to commence transcribing them. He sent disc copies to cousins including me. This prompted other family members to search for more of the diaries and to undertake more transcribing, especially my sister Margaret. I began to collate these and to contact many distant relatives and people from May’s village, to identify “characters” and explain some of the mysteries. However by late 2007 we had reached a point where the collection had many glaring gaps and it was not clear whether these represented missing diaries or periods of inactivity. Then came an unexpected breakthrough when a further batch of diaries – along with a wonderful collection of poems – came to light. This resulted in a continuous sequence, with the exception of  the very earliest diary section which was never found. The decision was made to publish the poetry collection, compiled with a selection of diary entries which revealed the thoughts behind the poetry, and much more besides, accompanied by a generous number of carefully restored nostalgic photographs.

Lately there seems to be more and more diary blogs, especially those related to World War II, appearing in the blogosphere. Why do you think we’ve seen such an increase?

I imagine that the generation of people who have access to legacy writing – the product of their ancestors – has gradually become aware of the blogging habit which had started primarily with a younger generation. As the idea began to spread, increasing numbers will have realised that the blog was the medium they had been waiting for, to do something useful with a collection of writing that they had been hoarding for years.

Why do such diaries have a strong attraction for readers? Especially since they deal with a major historical event – World War II – where we all know the eventual outcome?

Although the final outcome is well known, I think what holds such fascination for most readers is the very fine detail of day-to-day living through the wartime period – managing at home with the stringencies of rationing and shortages whilst waiting eagerly and apprehensively for news of those on the battle front. Many of those survivors who had been directly engaged in the conflict were reluctant to discuss, or may have been discouraged from talking about, their experiences. It may be that through diaries their families, or others who feel empathy with them, can gain a realistic impression for the first time.

As publisher of May Hill’s diaries and other works, you are using 21st century technology to make people aware of this 70 year old diary. What do you think May would think about that?

Clearly she could never have imagined the technology but I suspect she would be very much in favour. There were several instances in her diaries where she made very positive comments on advances in medicine and aircraft technology which had been accelerated by the war effort and where she foresaw even greater benefits in peacetime. She would probably be quite disappointed to know that by now bicycles have not been superceded by personal flying machines.

Is your business Ambridge Books a result of having discovered May Hill’s diaries? Did you ever think this book of memories and recollections could spawn such a business?

Ambridge Books was indeed created as a direct result of the desire to publish May’s writing as soon as possible after the decision had been taken. I certainly could not have foreseen that when the first transcriptions began. However, with the advances in PCs, publishing software and very high photo-quality digital printing technology, everything came together at just the right time. We were delighted to receive the first batch of printed books for sale within a few days of the file transfer of our own pdf version via the Internet. The immediate positive feedback from the first recipients, including many people with connections with May’s village, was very satisfying.

Finally, although this might be obvious, who is your favourite ancestor and why?

My grandmother May must hold pride of place with her amazing legacy of writing which means that so many members of her family feel so close to her – even if they, like her six grandchildren including me, never knew her personally. She even wrote several beautiful accounts of her Victorian childhood in delightful flashbacks, interspersed throughout the diaries, which other readers will encounter from time to time. Nevertheless, almost equal favourites are May’s three children who are “characters” in the diaries: Rene, my mother whose caring nature is celebrated in a poem; Ron, my uncle, whose RAF experiences are described; and Jean, my aunt, who is the sweetest person imaginable and who still lives near the village. Finally, my father, who served in WWI in the London Field Ambulance Corps – in the same Army Unit as composer Ralph Vaughan Williams – but that’s another story!

Photo: Tom Ambridge with sister Margaret and May Hill’s daughter Jean at work on the Diaries, digital photograph, copyright 2011, Tom Ambridge. Used by permission.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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