Past Memories

We all have our own view of the past, and particularly of our own part in it. I’ve long believed that I watched England beat Germany back in 1966 in a crowded room in an international hostel just to the south of Paris. It was a protestant centre largely housing refugees, and although many spoke a little English, my fiancée and I were among the very few English people staying there at the time.

She insisted when she heard me say this recently that she watched that final with the children in the home of a short French General (a mate of the tall one) where she went on leaving the hostel – and I left at the same time to start a new job back in outer London. My first day at work was 1st August 1966, 2 days after the final on 30th July.

It’s a story I’ve often mentioned over the years, when, as rather often happens in certain discussions, usually pint in hand that 1966 game comes up, and despite my absolute conviction that I was there at Cimade in Massy-Palisseau, on full consideraton I think Linda just has to be right.

I remember watching two matches in the communal TV room there, and the atmosphere that was not far removed from being on the terraces, except that the fans of both sides were in close proximity. Given that many of those at the hostel were Spanish or Portuguese speakers I think it most likely that the two games I saw were the quarter final with England playing Argentina and the semi against Portugal decided by two Bobby Charlton goals.

It’s a trivial example with little consequence, and probably of now great interest to anyone except Linda and myself. And since most often my story comes out in entirely male company when the talk turns to footy I could probably keep up with my embroidery about the occasion.

Of course what got me thinking (and writing) about this again were the photographic events around D-Day and the systematic and detailed research by A D Coleman and his team (J Ross Baughman, Rob McElroy, Charles Herrick.) Unlike my own case above there is a great deal of evidence about what actually happened – photographic and eye-witness reports – around these much more momentous events, and they have done a remarkable job of putting it together and teasing out the truth.

More recently Coleman’s emphasis has been on the failure of various individuals and bodies in photography with an interest in Capa to acknowledge this research, and to continue to promulgate the now discredited legends which were largely the inventions of two men, Capa himself and photo-editor John Morris.

A few days ago, Morris celebrated his 100th birthday, and the photographic world celebrated with him, largely by publishing those inventions which were the foundations of his later career – at a time when Morris himself has finally come to accept the findings of Coleman and others. As I commented on Facebook a week ago:

“After studying new theories of what happened, Mr. Morris now thinks that the negatives were not melted, and that Mr. Capa only exposed 11 frames on one of the four rolls that were shipped. Mr. Capa probably was rattled, Mr. Morris said, during the withering fire he withstood at Omaha beach.”

John Morris corrects a little photographic legend – thanks to A D Coleman & colleagues.’

As my rather heavy-handed example at the top of this post shows, it’s easy for any of us to become convinced by our own inventions, and I think that both Morris and Capa – who after all invented himself – were before long incapable of separating their fictions from the actual happenings. But in the end we have to give way to the evidence where it exists and is presented, although it may be hard to do so. And I am finding it hard, trivial though it is in my case. As I often think to myself, ‘If only I’d kept a diary.’

Coleman continues to excavate the career of John Morris in a series of posts, the third of which, Alternate History: Robert Capa and John Morris (c) appeared today, examining the exaggerations in Morris’s biographical note which was published in the February 1946 issue of Popular Photography, doubtless providing the source for many later journalists and writers.  His second piece looked at Morris’ part in covering up the truth about Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier‘, and the first in this sub-series Alternate History: Robert Capa and John Morris, examines the various published eulogies on Morris’s centenary – of which the Lens piece mentioned above stands out as the only one to bring out some of his inconsistencies. Written by James Estrin it also seems to be the only piece of any originality among them.

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