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Michael Palin, Review of Great Uncle Harry: Family History of World War II

Private HWB Palin drew one of the shortest straws in history. After surviving Gallipoli in 1915, he joined the Somme in 1916. His body, known only to God, was never found. Participating in one of humanity’s bloodiest battles can be considered a misfortune. Two resembles the sadism of fate.

But more than a century later, this previously unknown soldier received a posthumous stroke of luck. In Great Uncle Harry, his famous great-nephew Michael has pieced together his story, and it has all the elements of a globe-trotting epic across oceans and continents, citadels and empires.

The only problem is that Harry is by far the foggiest figure in the Palin family tree. The last of nine children born to a Herefordshire vicar and his American wife in 1884, he failed at school – Shrewsbury, later attended by Palin M – and was sent to India where, working on tea plantations, the The main impression he made was negative. . “He’s a rather self-satisfied young man,” sniffs an employer. “He seems to lack intelligence,” sniffed another. Instead, he tried farming in New Zealand, then a gunshot rang out in Sarajevo and Harry, now 30, began keeping a diary.

The first half of the book is an archaeological adventure. Palin finds clues where he can and delights in the lively diary kept by Harry’s father when he was a romantic young academic vacationing in the Alps. Indeed, the man’s courtship with Palin’s great-grandmother contained enough narrative fodder to be fictionalized in Palin’s 1991 film American Friends.

Harry is less promising. He remains vague in the undocumented shadows, forcing his biographer to subsist on crumbs and mush. There is a very frustrated deployment of the conditional, of this time of intuitions and estimations. “I’m in a realm of wild speculation here,” Palin ventures. In truth, he rarely gets away with it. “We know what he thought about group photos,” he says at one point. We don’t do it. All we know is what Palin thinks she thought. “I have to draw conclusions from the barest evidence,” he explains. When he discovers in a medical report that Harry’s left testicle is atrophied, he launches directly into an interpretation. “Could this be an unexpected insight into Harry’s understanding?”


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