Joan Wright, 96 this week, is one of a growing band of ninetysomethings who bring history alive. Paul Vallely met her
This week Joan Wright celebrates her 96th birthday. In her lifetime she has seen change of such degree and at such pace that it is difficult to take on board fully. Hers is a story of the century.

When she was born, Britain still had an empire, Ireland was unpartitioned and a tsar sat on the throne in Russia. Horses rather than cars dominated the streets. There was no electricity in common homes, many had no running water, and certainly no telephones, refrigerators or central heating. Penicillin and the other antibiotics had not been discovered. The NHS did not exist. Communism had not risen, let alone fallen. The aeroplane, the atom bomb, space travel and the computer were only just in the realm of fantasy. Women did not vote. Supermarkets had not been thought of. A social and economic order of rigidity and systemic unfairness was unchallengeable. The collapse of certainty was unthinkable.

Joan "Jinkie" Wright was born in Southsea on 17 August 1900 while her father was serving in the Boer War, commanding the East Lancashire Regiment. She was conceived on the eve of his departure, and he did not return until she was almost three. "My first memory is of father arriving back from the war," she recalls. "Mother said, 'Well, kiss her or something.' He did. He had a big, bristly army moustache. I burst into loud tears."

She spent the years that followed in the nursery with a succession of nannies. "I can't say I was very fond of any of them." From the age of four until she was eight she had a governess. "We were always moving about. We never seemed to stay anywhere more than a couple of years. My nickname - Jinkie - dates from when I was around 10. It was what my mother called me as a pet name. Short for high-jinks and all that."

When the First World War broke out, she was sent to boarding school at Totteridge, just outside London. She was there for three years until, on 13 June 1917, Zeppelins dropped 118 high-explosive bombs on London. "I remember going down to the cellars when the Zeppelins appeared. It was frightening. It brought the war home. It was the first time London had been bombed, though when we went to look at the damage it was nothing compared to that caused by the air raids in the Second World War.

"We were hungrier in the first war than in the second, though. There was rationing in the second but no one was really hungry. At the school, the head always had her meals on her own. They were served by a butler. One day half-a-dozen of us swooped on him as he was carrying the bread in to her, and stole it. She was very upset to think we were that hungry. We were, but it was a bit of a lark, too."

The events of the world impinged only tangentially. In Russia, the 1917 revolution toppled the tsar and brought Lenin to power, but the schoolgirl Jinkie recalled only Rasputin - "He was very intriguing, a very mysterious man with an extraordinary appearance."

When she left school, she did not get a job. "In those days, no matter whether you had money or not - and we weren't well-off, just my father's army pension, and my mother had a little personal income - if you were a certain class you didn't work. It wasn't proper. Nor was I trained for anything." Towards the end of the First World War she worked in a convalescent hospital but after that "I just played golf - gofe, it was pronounced in those days - and tennis and led a lady's life. We did a tremendous amount of voluntary work."

At the age of 20 she was sent to live with a family in Paris, then went on to Cannes for three years. "I was secretary of the British Lawn Tennis Club there, but after three years we came off the gold standard and people stopped going to the Riviera for the winter, so I came back to England."

In the years that followed she travelled abroad, often with her parents. Though she insists that she was too old to be a flapper, she does remember doing the Charleston at Saint Moritz. "It was very difficult and I wasn't very good, but we did it with gusto. People talked about the Black Bottom, but I never saw anyone do it. We went out to the West Indies as guests of the governor, and later travelled from there up to Canada before returning home. I can't remember doing anything useful until the Second World War." She was, though very involved in the Girl Guides for the next decade. "I was a district commissioner. I really threw myself into it. I wouldn't want you to think that we did nothing except tennis and parties."

Miss Wright never married. "I never met anyone I would like to have married and had children. I miss not having grandchildren now. But there was a tremendous superfluity of women after the first war."

This goes some way, perhaps, towards explaining the severe social resistance to the notion of divorce. "When the King abdicated in 1936, it was a terrific do. We were all terribly het up. We didn't approve of his involvement with Mrs Simpson. We didn't want her to be Queen. There was the suspicion that she was more concerned to be Queen than to marry the man himself. In those days divorce was absolutely unspeakable."

The Abdication marked a turning point in attitudes to the royal family. "The old Queen, Mary, was very stern. I don't think I ever saw her smile. She was truly regal, every bit the Queen. Though she was said to be a kindly person, her appearance was austere. And quite right! You've got to keep up a pretence of being special - you can't be hand-in-glove with the hoi-polloi. I don't know what she'd have thought of the present royals."

It was her daughter-in-law, the present Queen Mother, who began to alter things. Her identification with the ordinary people during the war was a great morale-booster but it marked the start of a change in the relationship between monarch and subjects. "Princess Elizabeth joined the ATS. I remember being terribly impressed by a picture of her changing a wheel." It was the start of a slippery slope, however. "Now it's Prince Charles in shorts, and all that," she says dubiously.

The Second World War, though, was a still-greater catalyst for social change. "When war broke out, our two maids joined up. One became a nurse and the other a station porter, which I remember thinking was a bit thick - she was aged about 40 and it was pretty heavy work, lugging some sizeable pieces about.

"My father was 90 by this time, so we moved into a hotel in Bournemouth, where we lived. I was in the Civil Defence and spent the first part of the war driving people about, doing first aid and cooking for the men. I worked about 90 hours a week. It was pretty tough. Two years later, my father died and I joined the Wrens."

The episodes of that period which stand out were the Blitz ("the devastation was terrible to see"); the evacuation from Dunkirk ("a very good thing"); the bombing of Pearl Harbour ("an awful shock") - yet, oddly, not the event which was to dominate geo-politics for four decades ("The atom bomb didn't seem that important at the time, it was just a bigger bomb"). She does recall the 1948 Olympics, though, when Britain won only three gold medals - "we did awfully badly, just like this time when all the medals were won by all these tiny little countries nobody's ever heard of."

As Britain lost its empire and strove to find a role, so too did Miss Wright. "I stayed in the Wrens until 1950. After that I became a school secretary at a prep school." She was happy. It was a new era, of which her most vivid memory is the Coronation in 1953. "I watched it from an ex-serviceman's stand on Constitutional Hill just by the side of the palace. It was quite a day."

She stayed at the same school, Allen House at Hook Heath in Surrey, until she retired at the age of 68. "I loved it ," she says. In her retirement she was secretary of the local branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. In her first street collection in 1969 she raised pounds 584.6s.9d. "It was quite a lot for those days. My last collection in 1984 raised pounds 4,188 and 98p." She has only recently retired as president of the Woking Wrens Association.

Four years ago, she moved into a comfortable Help the Aged home outside Woking, where she plans to celebrate her 96th birthday with a small luncheon party. She has no plans yet for her 100th. "I'm not sure I want to be here. I don't want to get more infirm and forgetful. I don't like being decrepit. It's maddening. I can't write properly now. I used to play a lot of bridge until last year, but my memory isn't good enough now. It's been all right through the summer but what will I do in the winter?

"The other thing is that when you get to my age, so many of my friends have died. I have some ,but they are quite a lot younger - they are 70 and 71. These are some of the milestones of ageing. Actually, it's not so much milestones as a catalogue - can't swim, can't walk, can't travel. I love travelling. We used to travel a lot - the Riviera, the south of Spain, Egypt, and so on. But I'd still like to go to Italy; I've never been to Rome." It doesn't seem implausible that she might yet go.