A young man walks towards us in a busy city street. He is in a military uniform, new buttons gleaming, cap jaunty-angled, his eyes fixed on the camera. Something about his lanky frame and baby-smooth cheeks suggests he is more boy than man. Three women walk in the other direction, the prim shapes of the backs of their black heels, skirts, coats and hats tell us the rest: it’s the 1940s, which means these women are walking off to a different destiny than the one that faces our young soldier.
Over 70-million people fought in World War Two, so there must be around 70-million families who have some version of this photograph tucked into an album in the corner of a dusty bookshelf. I care about this one, because this man, captioned “EHB: 1941”, became my grandfather. With my privileged insider information, I can tell you that this was taken in Cape Town CBD, just after he completed his training in Youngsfield, a few days before he was sent to Egypt where - according to him - he single-handedly defeated Rommel. I can also tell you that the boy in this photograph is seventeen years old. He lied about his age and signed up when he was sixteen. Back then, that’s just what poor boys did, especially those who were born in small mining towns like Piketberg and - like every teenager in every small town throughout history - were desperate to leave it.
There’s a standard set of emotions one feels obliged to project onto photographs of young men about to head off to a Great War: stoic resignation, doomed innocence, courageous duty, bald fear. You can’t read a photograph without its context. But with this photograph, I have too much context: I can’t read it without also projecting my memories of the man this boy ultimately became, the jolly octogenarian whose bony knee I’d perch on while we paged through the album this photograph lives in. I wish you could have met my grandfather. He was a hoot. He could wiggle his ears and talk like Donald Duck, and he was seven-foot tall, and every old lady in Sedgefield had a major crush on him, and children adored him. We adored him so much that we’d let him show us his boring old photo albums.