Thursday, 13 August 2015

Why blog?

Things have been quiet around here for quite a while. Thankfully, this isn't due to a deterioration in my health; I've just been working on other projects (such as writing an article for ME Awareness Week for my university's student newspaper, and writing a chapter for an anthology on the unique lived experience of childhood ME). This post has been languishing in my 'drafts' folder for over a year. I feel now is the perfect time to rediscover it.

It's been almost two years since a combination of anger, frustration and sheer desperation led me to set up my (very) tiny corner of the web. Since then I have shared personal information I long sought to keep hidden. I've put my face and my name to an often misunderstood condition. I bit the metaphorical bullet in sharing my words with not just fellow ME sufferers and strangers from all corners of the world, but also with my family and friends. In writing my blog I wear my heart not just on my sleeve but on the World Wide Web.

For someone who is by nature more private, keen to just grin and bear it and quietly get on with things, this is an incredibly daunting prospect. Yet for me, there is nothing more important. I write my blog because ME patients must be taken seriously, because things have to change, and because this story needs to be told.

My aim for activism is simple: to tell the truth. I don't have all the answers; I'm far from an expert! Yet lived experience and narrative wield enormous power. Though it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing or attract millions of viewers, in writing my blog I can tell my story. I can tell it as loudly, as rationally, and (hopefully!) as eloquently as possible. I can show that this is a real disease affecting real people - good, kind, intelligent people; people with promise, with talent, with their whole lives ahead of them. People who have done nothing wrong - people no different to any of you reading this now. I was only 14 when a seemingly innocuous virus left me with this cruel, debilitating illness. It has completely changed my life. M.E. is not fussy; it truly can affect anyone at any time. So while my main and undying motivation to keep raising funds and awareness is my fellow M.E. patients - particularly those who are too unwell to speak up for themselves - I think also of the hundreds of people who will be taken from their work places, universities and classrooms and plunged into the menacing uncertainty, scandal and despair of this illness. In hearing other voices and connecting with others who live with M.E. - many at such a severe extent that their condition has been compared to late-stage AIDS - I realise that what was borne out of a very personal anger and frustration at my own situation, now continues through love, empathy, and a collective need for treatment, research, and for dignity.

Here my words cannot be torn down by all manner of arrogant, ignorant consultants; the reality of my condition cannot be ripped apart, dismissed, or denied. My true, subjective experience is written here in black and white, ineffaceable. In writing, I have a voice. When you've had the traumatic experiences I've had, when you've been agonisingly denied and misbelieved and misrepresented for so long, having a voice is the most powerful, most empowering and most incredible thing in the world.

ME is too often denied, ignored, and dismissed; those who suffer from it are regularly neglected, misbelieved and even blamed for their illness. I speak out because I believe this is so incredibly wrong - and because I believe that through telling our stories, through telling the truth, we can change this.

For too long, my illness was a taboo. I didn't talk about it, I was embarrassed whenever it was mentioned, and I couldn't bear to even say the letters M-E. I was ashamed of my illness; I saw it as a personal weakness. I couldn't keep up in school, and when I was able to attend classes I was so often painfully embarrassed as my condition made itself visible in regular faints and collapses. In many ways, I felt like a failure.

Yet in confronting my ill health - and the scandalous situation that surrounds it - by volunteering for multiple ME charities, fundraising, and speaking out, I am so much more at peace. I am no longer embarrassed of my illness and, in doing what I can to raise awareness of the realities of M.E., I feel less frustrated in the knowledge that I'm doing what I can to ensure that, one day, everyone will know the truth about this awful disease. So, Why blog? In the words of the final scene of the film The Hours...

To look life in the face. 
Always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is. 
At last to know it, to love it, for what it is... 
and then, to put it away. 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

I'm worth more than £50

This morning there was a discussion on The Wright Stuff, on Channel 5, entitled "Is the NHS failing M.E. sufferers?". It featured the CEO of Action for M.E., Sonya Chowdhury, and Graeme Bloom, who has M.E. While I expected to be left feeling very angry and upset (as I usually am whenever M.E. is misrepresented in the press), I was actually quite impressed with the coverage, which for most part stayed true to the facts and made it clear how debilitating this illness is. We even had a mention of the fact that people can - and do - die from M.E. - something which is often shyed away from, even within the M.E. community (for an inexhaustive list of ME deaths, see here).

Aside from a rather unfortunate remark from Nadine Dorries that "97% of young people with ME/cfs recover" (if only this were true!) there were two figures that stood out to me. Firstly, that cancer (which affects 10 times as many people as ME and CFS) receives over 500 times more funding from the NHS than ME and CFS, and secondly, while other chronically ill patients each receive upwards of £2,000, the NHS spends only £50 per M.E. sufferer.

Who is allowed to decide that my health, my future, and my life - and the health, futures and lives of thousands of others - is worth just £50? How is this right? How is this fair?!

Firstly, I want to make it clear that - even though it cannot cure or treat me - I am completely pro NHS; it is a fantastic institution that us Britons should be proud of. Moreover, I am certainly not arguing for M.E. to receive the same funding as cancer, which obviously deserves every penny of the money that goes to fund treatments and - eventually - cures. Indeed, we don't want to take any funding (whether that's for research, care, or treatment) from any other illness (although personally I'd like to see M.E. getting more funding than male pattern baldness - which is awarded 18 million dollars in funding by the NIH, compared to a measly 3 million for M.E. and CFS). We just want to be taken seriously, believed, and for the funding for research and care to reflect the immensely debilitating nature of our illness. When your life is affected as much as ours can be, it's really not much to ask.

The same illness whose patients are worth only pennies, is the same illness which has been described by experts as more disabling than MS and congestive heart failure; the same illness whose most severe sufferers feel the same every day as an AIDS patient feels two weeks before death. It is the same illness that robs sufferers of their ability to work, of their ability to leave the house, and all too often of their ability to tolerate any stimulation, to be upright, and to move from bed.

While I remain chronically ill, I know just how lucky I am; I am so grateful for every day I can breathe painlessly, where I can leave the house, and where I am able to study. I would give every penny of my allocated £50 to those most severely affected: to those thousands of patients who cannot physically leave their beds, who are in unimaginable pain, who cannot even look out of the window or see their family and who, sadly, have little to no help from society and from the medical profession.

This is why I write my blog, while I spend what energy I do have on speaking up for myself and for fellow M.E. sufferers; it is why I volunteer for 3 M.E. charities, and why I work tirelessly to raise awareness and funds - because we deserve more than this. We deserve to have doctors who listen to us and who will believe us, instead of those who ridicule and abuse us. We deserve to have scientists working day after day to find proper treatments - like those who study other major illnesses - so that we can one day hope of a future without pain and illness; a future where we can go out to work, have a family, and do all the normal things most people take for granted, such as just sitting up in bed and having a conversation with a friend.

I am worth more than £50 - and so is every M.E. sufferer. This neglect, dismissal, and scandalous cover-up of the true suffering that neuro-immune Myalgic Encephalomyelitis inflicts on its sufferers is wrong, unjust, and inexcusable - and while I can't shout it from the rooftops, I for one will not stop until this abuse stops and ME patients are offered the help and support we so desperately deserve.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

On a life-long love of reading

We all spend our lives telling them - about this, about that, about people... 
But some? Some stories are so good we wish they'd never end. 
They're so gripping that we'll go without sleep just to see a little bit more. 
Some stories bring us laughter and sometimes they bring us tears. 
But isn't that what a great story does? It makes you feel. 
Stories that are so powerful, they really are with us forever.

All my life I have loved to read. My life-long love of literature began as a tiny baby, well before I could even read (I've seen the home-video evidence!) and it remains to this day - albeit that my books of choice now have words in them, rather than pictures.

As I grew up I transitioned from picture books, to basic story books, to books with chapters, and finally to canonical and classic literature. I filled in bright yellow Reading Diary after Reading Diary, and in primary school I was constantly getting told off for reading in lessons, or getting so caught up in the stories in my mind that I got distracted from my work. Now, as a university student, I spend almost all of my time reading. I read books in English, books in French, books just for fun, books to read before I go to sleep, books about books, books about the books about books... I read; I think; I reflect; I write. And I adore it. I happily have more books than clothes; at home books spill out of the two bookshelves in my bedroom, onto the bedside table, dressing table, and the floor... I surround myself with the written word, I trawl book shops on shopping trips, I hunt out old classics from my family's very extensive collection - but while I'll read almost everything, I refuse to go near anything like Fifty Shades of Grey!

Stories have always been more than black words on a white page. When I became ill I went from reading Les Misérables, to being unable to pick up a book, let alone read it. ME's greatest insult came in shattering my previous intelligence, disabling my cognitive abilities: I couldn't write, and worst of all I couldn't read. At the start of my illness, when able to attend hospital appointments, I vividly remember seeing a girl in the waiting room reading a book - and I thought that is what health is. 

Reading has brought me comfort and understanding at a time when I felt more alone than I could ever put into words. It brought me to Virginia Woolf, whose life, works and influence have become so profoundly entwined and interlaced with my own life and experiences over the past 7 years. She introduced me to the moderns, to the post-modernists and the confessional poets, and then encouraged me to dive back into the canon, discovering canonical works alongside those ignored by traditional literary tradition. I met characters similarly trapped inside an ill body: Dickens' Esther in Bleak House, Plath's Esther in The Bell Jar, and all the other men and women in between, before and after. I left my own sick room and entered those of others; I felt the most exquisite relief and understanding in seeing my thoughts written down on paper, and was able to articulate to myself exactly how this tumultuous change had made me feel. More than this, reading that 'Beauty was everywhere' in Mrs Dalloway, and seeing the power of seemingly mundane events of a single day in June, truly changed my life for the better: I began to notice this beauty in my everyday life, to find hope and positivity in my life-with-limits and to love it for what it was.

At times of stress or great turmoil I can walk the familiar London streets with Clarissa Dalloway, or I can escape to the hallowed halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When ME monopolises my brain and rids me of any cognitive ability, when I can't make sense of the English language, I can turn to the Waste Land of Eliot's poetry, or flick to a random page of Joyce's poetic prose, allowing the letters on the page to swim round inside my head and form a meaning that otherwise escapes me.

Stories and books have had such a huge influence on my life: they've given me empathy; given me excitement, fear, smiles, and a few tears; given me safety, comfort, and places to call home - but, most of all, they helped to give me a happy childhood that could withstand the sadness, grief, and many frustrations brought about by the challenges of being young yet chronically ill.

The sad fact is that my childhood will forever be tainted with memories of illness. An illness that had no end; an illness that should never have been. Those rose-tinted memories of blissful, nostalgic happiness, of a time before I knew what pain was and when illness was only ever temporary, will always be outshone by sinister memories of a time I wish had never happened.

But I have such powerful recollections of the happiest of times, memories which refuse to be spoilt by their sudden, unfortunate end. Memories of happy times with family at Fernleigh; of the best childhood friends; hours on end playing all sorts of make-believe games with my little brother; of being surrounded by endless love from my incredible parents. Amongst these happiest childhood memories, are memories of the books I read, the friends I made, the places, worlds and people I visited; of reading after lights-out well into the night, of bedtime stories, of the funny accents my Dad put on; of the way he mispronounced Her-mee-oh-nee - and of the way my Mum told him off!

While the future may be uncertain, I know I will continue to find joy in reading. I look forward to the books I'll read; the stories and those who tell them - and I know that whatever struggles face me in the future, I'll be able to find escape and solace in the pages of books familiar to me, as well as in those I'm yet to discover.

I see literature as a record of human experience; as a way of transforming traumatic and painful experiences into the most eloquent and exquisite of art forms; as a voice for the so often voiceless; as a therapeutic way of exploring our own thoughts and feelings, both those of the author and those of the reader; and as an incredible form of connection - to friends, family, strangers; to people we've never met nor will ever meet.

Books are so much more than the stories they tell, and I, for one, can't imagine my life without them.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Mum, Helen and Heather walk 26.5 miles for ME Research UK!

It's less than 6 months since my birthday fundraiser and I have more very exciting fundraising news! This time, though, I'm not doing anything myself because...

My Mum, her best friend Helen, and my best friend Heather (who is also Helen's daughter) are walking 26 and a half miles in one day - all in the aid of ME Research UK! As part of the Bath Beat on April 11th, they'll be walking the length of a marathon, through varied and often tough West Country terrains, and potentially in the torrential downpour that is the Great British Weather (I think that in itself definitely deserves donations!).

I don't think Mum and Helen would mind me saying that - while they're by no means couch potatoes! - they're not born athletes, and they've been dedicatedly training every week for months, building up their walks pacing style come rain or shine. This has involved getting completely soaked, lost, running into the path of potential wild boars (that turned out to be a deer!), and getting electrocuted by electric fences amongst other obstacles! Helen's been writing a blog on their progress - you can read it here, and it's definitely worth a read as it is comedy gold!

I was so touched to hear that my family and family friends were going to do such a challenge on my behalf and to raise much-needed funds for such a well deserving charity. I think in living with this illness you so often see the very worst of human nature - so when people show true kindness and compassion it is incredibly encouraging and really does mean so much more than I can express in words. Regardless of my health challenges, I honestly still feel so very lucky to have such lovely people in my life.

If you would like to sponsor their fundraising efforts, the group's JustGiving page can be found by clicking here. ME Research UK is a brilliant charity that funds biomedical research into finding potential causes of, treatments for and eventually a cure for ME - an illness that, despite being named as one of the most 'debilitating' and devastating diseases of the modern world, receives no government funding and is still surrounded by chronic misunderstanding and a dangerous and unjust stigma. If you're new to my blog, you can read about the subjective experience of an ME sufferer here.

Thanks for reading and thank you even more to Mum, Helen and Heather - I'll be there to see you off and I hope that you don't get too many blisters (or, of course, eaten by a wild boar!)

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Part-time study, one year on

It has been a little over a year since I transferred to part-time study at university – and what a year it’s been! My health had forced me to a point where the decision was effectively taken out of my hands; things were looking bleak and really quite scary, and going part-time was a last-ditch attempt to keep my place on my degree course and retain some independence. I can honestly say that is has been the best decision I have ever made.

So how does part-time study work? At my university (Durham) it means that I study 3 modules throughout the year, instead of the usual 6. Basically, I spread one year of study over two academic years and – thanks to a lot of help from College staff in the organisation of it – it really is as simple as that. I have fewer contact hours, fewer exams, fewer deadlines, and fewer essays – and it is a million times more manageable.

This year, I have 3 contact hours per week, two essays to write per term, and 4 exams to sit at the end of the year. For health reasons I live in College, and have done since the start of my degree in September 2012. My College is only a short (barely 5 minute) walk to lectures, it is fully catered and I can have meals brought to me if I really need, and support staff are on duty 24/7 in case of health emergencies – although I am pleased to say that I have been able to look after myself (and occasionally also other people, too!) completely independently this year. This is something I am incredibly happy about - both for myself and for College staff, with whom I was in almost constant contact when I was at my most unwell, often at very unsociable hours. I am finally being able to experience the one thing I most wanted about university: being able to look after myself and manage my own health, with fewer disasters than those that filled my time at school when I was able to be there!

This time last year I was having to contend with the very real possibility that I may have to drop out for good, or face having a full-time carer, but since going part-time I have seen enormous improvements. I’m no longer being sent home at least twice a term (I don’t think my Dad misses the emergency 12-hour round trip to pick me up - and our Senior Tutor definitely doesn't miss my stubborn refusal to leave!), I’m no longer enduring such horrendous seizures practically every day, or experiencing such severe pain. Yes, I’m most definitely still unwell; I still struggle an awful lot, despite the fact that it is now mostly behind-the-scenes and out of sight, and I still regularly – though not as often as before – ask myself why on earth I’m putting myself through this. But things are so much more stable, so much happier and so much better now – I even find myself talking and thinking of graduation as a when not as an if.

When I left school I never would have thought that staying at university would be almost as hard as getting to university, and I’m so glad I didn’t, because if I had I would never have put myself through such enormous difficulties – but equally I would never have got to experience such great joy and a feeling of success that had seemed unattainable all those years ago.

M.E. has robbed me of many things: memories, friendships, and often I feel even my identity. My childhood came to an abrupt end, and I missed out on the carefree teenage years - years that, traditionally, find their main source of anguish in exams and relationships were overshadowed by severe illness and often just sheer survival. While my friends gained independence, I lost it, becoming once again entirely dependent on the care of my parents. The usual rites of passage - driving licences, nights out, drunken parties, hangovers... - were replaced with doctor's appointments, hospital visits, endless prescriptions, and the perpetual, unjust frustration in having a misunderstood, stigmatised - yet torturous and incurable - chronic illness.  I had to give up the sports that I'd trained so hard at for years, and all the music I loved so much; I've not been near a piano in years, and while I hopefully tune it regularly, my much-loved viola's not seen proper practice in a long time. I've never had a job nor had a boyfriend; I'm yet to go on a date or to open my first pay cheque. I have accepted my life-with-limits as much as I feel is possible, but still these losses haunt me with their ever-present questions of "what if" and "what could have been".

Throughout this, my education – when I have been well enough to study – became not just my priority, but my sole source of success and sense of achievement. Those black letters or numbers on white paper meant, and continue to mean, so very much more to me than the grades they represent. While my M.E. still encroaches on every aspect of my life, being able to be at university – and even succeed in my studies – allows me to transcend my ill body and become more than my disability. It’s definitely been more than worth the pain and heartache.

To finish off a post that I’m so happy to be writing – yet can’t quite believe that I’m able to do so! – I’d like to say a huge and truly heartfelt thank you to anyone and everyone who has been part of my time at university, without many of whom I honestly wouldn’t be able to be where I am today.  

Durham is so beautiful that it makes the prospect of a 6 year undergraduate degree seem almost preferable!

Monday, 29 December 2014

What 2014 taught me

Frosty mornings follow wintry nights; sunsets greet us eagerly in the mid-afternoon chill. The year hurtles unwaveringly towards its dignified end, taking its final, icy breaths as we wait patiently, hoping to discover better things on the next page.

The year has passed by in a flash of light and dark, highs and lows, hopes and fears; it seems like an eternity has flown by since I said hello to 2014. It has been an incredible, hugely formative year - and one which has thankfully treated me a lot more kindly after the despair, pain and utter bleakness of 2013. Here is my list of lessons learnt, as I look back on the past year with a mixture of fondness and relief. 

"Uncertainty is the refuge of hope" (Henri-Frédéric Amiel)
I stepped gingerly into 2014, unsure of what the coming days would hold, let alone the year to come. With my health so unstable, and frightening new symptoms appearing at every turn, uncertainty plagued me like a dark smog; thick and impenetrable. I felt like the only thing I could be certain of was that I would wake up the next morning and feel just as ill, with just as many questions left unanswered. In the words of my GP, the future looked bleak and, though I wouldn't admit it at the time, I was terrified. In a resolute, final attempt to delay what seemed the inevitable bowing out of my university course, I transferred to part-time study with the possibility of having a full-time live-in carer. Just as hope was dwindling - and the familiarities of severe illness prepared to encroach once again - my health gradually begun to stabilise, and though things are still a struggle, I can now look back on the last 18 months from a much better place.

The New Year is often a difficult time for those with chronic illness: while the healthy can look forward to the exciting opportunities the new year offers, the chronically ill can be sure that their symptoms will follow their every move, undeterred by resolutions or the change in calendar. Even more, anniversaries marking months, years or even decades of illness, or perhaps particularly memorable relapses and deteriorations in health, will only add to the difficulty experienced. However, the events of this year have taught me to hold onto hope, even when only the tiniest shred remains - because you never know what's round the corner.

"I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the night" (Helen Keller)
2014 has taught me a lot about friendship. I've learnt the hard way that friends can change, and that the people you once trusted can insult, upset and disappoint you more than you thought possible. More positively though, this year has been incredible for the amazing friends I've made - and for the friendships rekindled. I know now that true friendship can be rediscovered, and that years apart matter as little as seconds when it comes to reconnecting with an old friend you feared you'd lost. I've learned also that the best friends can be found when you least expected - but most needed - them.

One of the most special moments of 2014 was celebrating my 21st birthday (which I 'donated' to M.E. Research UK) because I was able to spend it with almost all of my closest friends - many of whom had travelled far and sacrificed much to be there. It was a privilege, and despite all the frustrations and losses M.E. brings, I consider myself truly blessed to have such great friends - alongside the most supportive family possible.

Meeting Rachel has been by far the highlight of 2014. She's truly incredible and our friendship brings me so much happiness - I can't wait to see all the great things 2015 has in store for us.

"Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the earth" (William Faulkner)
This year my confidence has grown in leaps and bounds - I've even made a YouTube video to announce my fundraising and hopefully raise some much-needed awareness of M.E. in the process. I may be naturally more quiet and reserved, content to just determinedly grin and bear it, but I am incredibly passionate about this cause. I want so desperately to do what I physically can to help those suffering more severely, to tell the truth about M.E. and to dispel the unfair stigma. If I could, I would shout from the rooftops - but for now, I'm doing all I can with what I've got.

"My thinking is my fighting" (Virginia Woolf)
One of the most memorable days of this year was a visit to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (Woolf has been perhaps my biggest inspiration throughout my illness; I hope to write more about this in the coming year). This sentiment runs true for me, for while my body may be weak, my mind is not. Writing my blog this year has brought me a feeling of peace that had been alien to me since developing M.E. 6 years ago, because I know that through my thinking - and my writing - I am fighting against circumstances that for a long time seemed insurmountable. After all, "Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic - capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it" (Albus Dumbledore/JK Rowling).

Thank you so much to everyone who has supported and helped me through 2014. I hope that the next year brings great things to you all - especially those for whom this year has not treated with the kindness you deserve. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

We will remember them.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

In loving memory of Henry Leslie Cheston (1895-1977) and John Anthony Cheston (1925-2007), and to all absent friends.

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
A minute's silence to mark the signing of the armistice, to remember the millions of service-men and -women who gave their lives, and to think of all those affected by war.
A time for remembrance.

The time and date is so routinely etched into our memories, yet the human stories of suffering, death, destruction - and survival - are too often unknown or too easily forgotten, and one minute is just too short to remember so many millions of lives. With the start of the First World War now over one hundred years ago and fading rapidly from living memory, and with our modern-day Western lives bearing little resemblance to those of war-torn Britain, remembrance is now more important than ever - for the sake of those lives lost, as well as those still suffering and affected by war.

My Father recently found a box of old letters written by my relatives during the First and Second World Wars - the oldest, written by my great-great-grandmother upon hearing that her son had enlisted, was over 100 years old. Many letters are incredibly moving and really quite shocking - especially those sent from The Trenches - while others tell of remarkably mundane events, showing that in the midst of all great suffering, there are moments of joyful normality.

Over the last year of writing my blog, I have learnt that true and honest stories are the greatest weapon we have in giving a voice to those who are invisible, forgotten, or already departed. It is a way of making an existence real and undeniable, and of remembering and giving value to great suffering and great achievements. So today, on the 11th November 2014 and in the spirit of remembrance, I would like to share with you some memories, letters and information to tell the the War-time stories of two great men - Leslie and John Cheston - my great-grandfather and Grampa, in the first and second World Wars respectively.

My great-grandfather, Henry (always known as Leslie) Cheston, was born in Clapham, London on the 31st May 1885, and grew up in Taunton, Somerset with his parents and three siblings. After leaving school he worked for the Bristol Corporation Electricity Department. Four weeks after the outbreak of the First World War - on 11th September 1914 - and at the age of just 19, he enlisted as a Private and was posted to "A" Company, 12th Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment. Upon hearing of his decision to enlist, his mother wrote to him "I knew [...] you felt you were doing your duty [...] hard as it will be to see you go [...] I could not say don't go, so I must just say go dearest son, and God be with you to bless and protect you in all good ways". 

Leslie later in the war at age 21

In April 1915, the new battalion moved to Chipping Sodbury for training, then Wensleydale, followed by Salisbury Plain in late August. Finally, on 21st November 1915, the now Lance-Corporal Leslie Cheston landed with 12th Battalion at Boulogne in France.

Corporal William Ayres of “D” Company in the 12th Battalion - whose experience of WWI was no doubt very similar to Leslie's - recalled his introduction to life in the trenches at this time:-

"Before entering the trench, every man took from a pile, two thigh length gum boots – already wet and heavy from previous use, and, so equipped, started on the slow journey to the front line. The mud was thick and slimy, but, in places, the clay gave it an even thicker, sucking consistency that gripped and held the gum-boot so that it could not be pulled out, and the unfortunate wearer could only lift his leg out of the boot, and go on bare footed. At the worst periods, some of the troops would be left with one or even no gum-boots. 
And the rats! – the only way to rest, was to pull a great coat right over the head, and try to ignore what was scampering over and around. All this in addition to the hazards of war, and of the duties of sentry, standing-to, signal communications, feeding, and the normal process of just living."

On New Years' Eve 1915 - the last day of what he describes as "this never-to-be forgotten year" - Leslie sent home from the trenches a letter to his sister, Hetty, who was at the time working in a Sanatorium (and would later die of Spanish 'Flu in 1918). He nostalgically recalls Christmas at home, including "dinner, the best you could wish for because Mother prepared it [...] I can see it all". He remarks "Who knows what next [year] has in store for us - something good I hope". 

The next year - 1916 - was eventful, including (according to a Lieutenant-Colonel Colt in the same Battalion) "the worst march the battalion ever did" which lasted 3 days in the snow, until they arrived in a suburb of Arras. Here they joined the French troops in a very difficult battle in which the German forces had a vantage point atop the hill, and surrounded the allied forces on all three sides; many men were lost. At some point Leslie was promoted to Sergeant, and in the July the Battalion were involved in the Battle of Delville Wood (or 'Devil's Wood' as it was known). This was an incredibly difficult battle for the 12th Gloucesters: Colt recalls that "Bosche shelled pretty heavily [...] and occasionally put shrapnel over us" and that "We had a good many casualties, mostly from "A" Company" - Leslie's company. We imagine that it may have been this battle when he was wounded, for he returned back to England to receive treatment and we know was in an army camp in late August 1916 from where he again writes to his sister.

After recovering in England he is "drafted" (transferred) to another part of the army - to the 9th Battalion. He is then posted to the Mediterranean, and after this to Greece and Bulgaria. This is much less well known than the Western Front, but just as bloody and futile. We know for definite that Leslie was at the Battle of Doiran in April - May 1917 because it is here that he won his Military Medal (a very high ranking medal awarded for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire).

The Military Medal. Photo from Google.

The Battle of Doiran was an incredibly costly battle for the British troops: they lost in total 12,000 killed, wounded, and captured - six times more than their opposers. It was during the final day of the battle, and the last attempt by the British to take the Bulgarian positions which twere incredibly strong and well prepared, on the side of a mountain, that Leslie won the Military Medal. Family story tells that Leslie saved his wounded officer, carrying him to safety under heavy gunfire and at great personal risk to himself. The award itself reads:

Gallantry and devotion to duty. When his officer was wounded on night 8/9th May 1917 Sgt. Cheston led the platoon to the hostile position in the face of severe machine gun fire, and when ordered to withdraw showed great coolness and determination in so doing. He has at all times proved himself a capable leader and has constantly displayed qualities of personal bravery of a very high order.”

Leslie's war ends with returning to France and taking part in the Battle of Cambrai (the first battle in which tanks were used) before being de-mobilised in 1919. Astonishingly, he later volunteered again to fight against the Bolsheviks in Russia later the same year.
Midshipman John Cheston

Leslie's son - and my grandfather - John Cheston followed his father's example by serving in the Second World War, but in the Navy rather than the army.

In 1943 and straight after leaving school, John enrolled in a course at St John's College, Cambridge that would select promising Officers to go out and lead troops in WWII. He spent four or five months in rigorous training and studying, before being posted to various naval bases for further training. This training was - as John puts it in one of his letters home - "strenuous" (although I consider this a typically understated remark!) The men were subject to physical training - which, for example involved climbing a 100ft mast erected in the naval base - as well as spending what is at one point "every other day" on Gunnery involving "6" Gun drill with 100lb shells" among many other responsibilities, including what sounds like quite a lot of intensive rowing! They were also required to spend hours (sometimes up to six) "doing drill" - at one point he assures his father (Leslie) that "All the marching is done very efficiently in the Navy by the way!"  On occasion John had time to get involved in the division's sporting teams - including rugby (evidently a long-standing family favourite) as in one letter he expresses his excitement at playing with "Gadney who about 5 years ago captained England!"

Leaving the sporting success behind and plunging once again into hard labour, John and fellow naval officers in training were also required to spend time on very old ships. In one letter sent from HMS Foudroyant, John describes the arduous daily routine onboard one of these vessels:

"We get up at 6.30 lash up & stow hammocks, breakfast at 7, fall,in and clean ship at 8 (this means scrubbing decks in bare feet which can be as you may well imagine very cold. Then prayers and start work at 9. We get a 10 minute break at 10.20. Dinner at 1/, work again at 1.15. Break at 2.20 and then finish at 4 unless you have special dog watch duties. Tea at 4. Then various odd jobs until supper at 7 and pipe down at 10. 

The hammocks aren't too bad except that you have to sleep on your back or very nearly: only 1 blanket too & mine is simply flea ridden - honestly I'm bitten all over."

The officer selection process was tough - as John describes, one third of his division did not make the cut, and those who "dipped" were given most vague and inadequate reasons as to why. However, evidently displaying the great qualities of bravery and leadership his father had been commended for, John was promoted to Officer and was soon commanding vessels entirely on his own - as he says,  "I have to do all the running of the ship myself". 

Before long he was taking charge of a Tank Landing Craft, transporting tanks from British ports to the French beaches, around the time of D-Day. Although he bravely plays down the dangers in his letters home to his parents, these vessels were relatively small and fiendishly difficult to drive - especially when the tide was rough due to the shape being quite flat (as necessary in order for the tanks to be able to be picked up and deposited), which meant that they were prone to sinking. They could also be taken out by much bigger "destroyer" ships - one of which John's boat was sent to help fight off, but which he was glad to find had already been dealt with before he could get to it! 1 out of every 5 Tank Landing Crafts were sunk in the years that my Grampa was driving them - a testament surely to the skill and courage it took to command them. Indeed, John's Tank Landing Craft was LCT 1021; LCT 1022, however, sunk. John continued to command LCTs and similar vessels, even apparently disposing of unexploded weapons somewhere in the ocean after the war had ended (again, not the safest of jobs!)

Some Tank Landing Crafts. Photo from Google.

My Grandfather was incredibly modest about his experiences and achievements in the war, and would tell brilliant - yet often somewhat self-deprecating - stories to his young grandchildren. I remember him once showing my brother and I a post-card he'd found with a picture of a Tank Landing Craft similar to the one he'd commanded - and I remember being very interested, but not at all surprised; he was such an incredible man at the head of our family, who I loved and admired so much, that his bravery and achievements just fitted in with what I already knew. Indeed, reading the letters, I can see so much of the Grampa I would meet almost 50 years later, such as when he writes about losing his comb, or finding his scissors "in my blue suit trouser pocket" - perhaps giving some evidence to the genetic theory behind the Cheston men's talent of losing everything - or when he writes of a Church service: "We had a most enjoyable service tonight: the singing was jolly hearty on my part if not particularly skilled. The lesson was the one that starts "let us now praise famous men". It is one of my favourites, but I often think I could read it far better than some of those who do" which shows that his love of singing loudly in Church and his talent for reading poetry or biblical extracts with the most eloquent expression was one he picked up early in life - the somewhat reckless driving he perhaps picked up in later life...! 

Grampa later in life - with a very little me!

What struck me most in my Grampa's letters was the description of events - such as going to Church on Sundays and the occasional trip to the cinema whilst in training - that seemed so mundane and trivial compared against the harsh experiences that both himself and his father - and many millions of others - suffered during the World Wars. I think that it is easy to forget that, despite war and suffering, daily life does - and must - continue. There is a fantastically humorous description in one of the letters of my grandfather and a friend while stuck on a French beach in war-torn Normandy, "wandered off to try our French on some of the inhabitants" and, after changing currency "with some yanks" managed to purchase some eggs and cider - and then when the came back the next time brought some English coffee to swap for some more cider! There is also a beautiful moment described a year or so earlier, when John writes that he wanders off on his own to look at the war ships, observing that "it was bright moonlight". It is a lesson to us all that within great suffering there can be moments of joy and normality - and, what is more, that adverse circumstances do not define us: they are what we make of them. As the war poem In Flanders Fields reads: 'Take up our quarrel with the foe / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high', let us live by their brave example, and live with courage, empathy, and determination, holding the torch high through whichever wars and battles we face in our own lives.

We must keep the memories alive - and we must remember the men and women who served in the World Wars for who they were: real people, with real stories, who made true sacrifices. In the poetic words of Philip Larkin, What will survive of us is love. So on this Remembrance Day and in all the days that follow, let us remember them with love - for the love they had for their country, for their duty, and for their friends and family. Let us not forget that it was for the love of us, and for the hope of creating a brighter future for the country and its future citizens, that so many men and women sacrificed their lives. With love, we will remember them.