Jack McQuoid (1910-1985): War & Memory – Writing Lives

Jack McQuoid (1910-1985): War & Memory

‘I have lived through most of the twentieth century – an age of conflict and propaganda in which I have strived to seek a measure of enlightenment, but that is very limited.’


War plays an integral role in Jack’s memoir. His life has been immersed in the experience of war as a child during WWI and as an adult fighting for the RAF in WWII. The quote above portrays Jack’s efforts to see the good within the bad but admits that he struggles to do so. Even as he writes his memoir he confesses to his disapproval of the events of the trouble.

‘This may sound bitter, but I am writing this down on St. Patrick’s day of 1982, two days after an innocent child in Banbridge had become the victim of an I.R.A. bombing raid.'(25)

Jack’s life was immersed in violence. It was something that he became accustomed to but knew that there needed to be change.

One of the first memories as a child living during the war was his first encounter with soldiers in Northumberland. ‘The people of the village flocked out of their houses with jugs of homemade lemonade, mugs of tea, baskets of cakes, bread and jam, and buttered scones. Rationing had evidently not taken such a grip during that state of the war, or the villagers were good hoarders.'(31) Jack lived in a closely knit community that came together in the toughest of times and gave what little they could to soldiers. This act of generosity taught Jack to instil this value in his own life which is evident when he gave $10 to his colleague in America(see Migration, Immigration & Emigration post for more).

Jack merges his life on the Front and at the Home Front by comparing his experience of visiting the Burns’s house as a child and an adult. ‘At that time the elder son, Willie, a dark eyed lad of about eighteen years old, had joined the army.'(44) Jack reflects on his admiration as a child of one of his neighbours who joined the RAF. ‘During the second world war, when I was in the RAF and stationed near the Scottish border, I visited the Burn’s house once again.'(44) Sadly this comparison does not have a happy ending. Mrs Burns is the only one left in the house as her husband died and both of her sons were fighting in the RAF and Air Force. ‘This was news to me – sad news to hear in a house that once rang with the laughter of young people.'(44) Jack conveys the catastrophic affects that war can have on families.

‘On my way to the bathroom I peeped into Willie’s bedroom. The bicycle was still there hanging from the beam and other items in the room that I had seen in my childhood seem to have been left undisturbed – as he had left them in 1917.'(45) Mrs Burns has not changed Willie’s bedroom possibly in an attempt to preserve the memory of the past when her family was happy and whole.

A shell shocked soldier in the trenches during World War One

Shell shock was a term used to describe the Post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) that many soldiers were afflicted with. PTSD was not recognised until 1980 so this shell shock was often overlooked by many doctors. ‘My mother told my father of the naval officer’s ordeal, and how his doctors had told him the Battle of Jutland had incurred a nervous breakdown, and that a quiet place like Glynn in the country might help him to recover.'(70) Jack encounters a naval officer afflicted by the terror of war when he was just a child. The naval officer asked Jack’s parents if he could rent their house when they no longer needed it as he was advised to find solace in the countryside ‘I learned from whisperings about me that the corpse in the coffin was that of a naval officer, and that naval officer had jumped to his death from a hotel window.'(71) Unfortunately the young man could not deal with the mental trauma and committed suicide leaving behind his wife and child. Jack witnesses first hand as a child and a man how war can rip a family apart.

Glynn village 1910

Jack confesses ashamedly his main reason for joining the RAF was the prospect of being employed. ‘I would not admit that what drove myself and many others down to recruiting offices was the prospect of getting a job.'(185)

Liverpool is identified by Jack as a symbol of a cross roads in his life. ‘Next morning the vessel tied up at Liverpool. This city was becoming a cross roads in my life.'(187) The place of his birth, the place of his return from America and now his place to fight for his country.

This extract addresses the true struggles Jack faces during his time in the RAF. ‘I lit the hurricane lamp and found that the tent pole was pierced by fragments of shrapnel, so was the table on which the letter to my mother lay, and the legs of a chair eighteen inches above the floor boards. The letter was untouched and I posted it to my mother the next day. In it I had mentioned the pleasant autumn weather, but nothing about air raids.'(204) Although Jack has gone through a traumatic event and may possibly need comforting he knows that it is his role to step up for his family and not to frighten anyone. It is admirable the strength Jack has in partaking in this traumatic role.

Jack writes about his marriage to Eleanor with little to no detail. ‘Otherwise the year was uneventful – apart from one important event in my life. I got married to Eleanor Beatty.'(216) He does admit that: ‘It was one of those war time rushed weddings, I am afraid, as I was posted to a camp in England shortly afterwards, and I had word of the posting before my marriage.'(216) Despite this he never goes into much detail about his marriage at all throughout his memoir. David Vincent addresses that: ‘In this respect most of the autobiographers simply thought that the details of their emotional lives were not a matter of interest to their readership or, for that matter, to future historians, for whom many were consciously writing.’(Vincent, 1981, 229) This may be the reason as to why Jack divulges little to his reader about his personal love life.

Eleanor played an integral role whilst Jack was away at war. ‘Eleanor stayed on at that farm – wisely. It was not much pleasure following an RAF: husband round from station to station in the UK in war time.'(217) Jack did not want to put Eleanor through the pain of following him during the war. Instead he thought it would be good to keep her busy looking after the farm. ‘Besides, there were jobs to do on the farm – for Eleanor cooking and paperwork mostly.'(217)

Vincent states the integral role women had to play during the war. ‘Conversely, in times of hardship, a working man would look primarily to members of his own family for material as well as emotional support. The wife was in charge of the household budget and her efficiency, ingenuity and courage in a crisis were crucial to the economic survival of the family.'(Vincent, 1981, 239) Despite not writing much about Eleanor, it seems Jack loves her deeply as he makes sure that she is always protected.

Ironically, Jack states that the only lasting decision during this time was the implement of P.A.Y.E in 1944. ‘Perhaps the most lasting decision in that year that was made for the future – that none of us has been allowed to forget since – was the decision to introduce P.A.Y.E on the following year.'(216) The terror of war has not left any mark that will stay forever but tax is something that cannot be avoided.

In a confessional tone Jack addresses to his readers how his war experience will never be erased. ‘I never have, though I could never remember the number of my bank card, my insurance card, my OAP book, or the number of my car. But the number the Air Force gave me in 1939 was ‘972135.’ I was fortunate not to have been buried with it.'(225)

Jack confesses about his trials and tribulations of his writing process of his memoir to his readers. ‘At the end of this chapter, in a previous draft written four years ago, I inserted a poem about homecoming, written in the winter of 1945. I am leaving it out this time.'(226) Jack is a very self conscious author he is his worst enemy in terms of criticises as he mocks his own work. ‘I can still enjoy the sounds of the country etc, but leave my poem be as a poem. In writing autobiographical material one is inclined to insert the bright things or the very bad things.'(226)

War has instilled in Jack various good values that made him into the man he is through his experience of war as a child. His experience of war as an adult challenges these very values he has and makes him question in a critical tone the reason for such bloodshed.


McQuoid, Jack, ‘One Man in his Time’ pp.328, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, vol. 4.

Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1981.

NB: all pictures and images have links of their source.

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