Monday, 17 February 2014

Old age and the war

Carole, my lovely French tutor, expressed her surprise recently at the degree to which Brits still go on about 'the war'. It's just not the same in France apparently, not a subject that takes much precedence. I'm sure there are some theories as to why the French feel that way which I don't feel qualified to discuss, but I don't really get why we still have such a preoccupation with it here.

It's become a source of ridicule in some ways, like when Uncle Albert of Only Fools and Horses was always trotting out his famous line of, “During the wa-ahr...” I never used to think about what people actually must have gone through; I'd switch off, it seemed so long ago and irrelevant, boring even. And I'd wonder why some discussed their wartime experiences with a nostalgic relish, as if they were good times, as if they were times to look back on fondly! But I think I get it more now. Those moments of extreme adversity, endured and survived individually and communally, are a big deal. Most of us ordinary (younger) civilians haven't a clue.

I have to remind myself of that when I'm frustrated by the old dears in the charity shop bumbling around and getting in the way of the box of CDs (or knitting patterns) on the floor, and when I'm stuck behind the elderly chap in the supermarket queue who can't find his reading glasses or the right change. It's so easy to disregard older people for all the obvious reasons, isn't it? Especially the ones who can't help talking shite. We've all been there I'm sure, stuck listening endlessly and patiently to someone who tells you the minutiae of their dull daily routine because they just want someone to chat to, but whose lonely desperation to talk has unfortunately become the very reason why people avoid them, and thus that lonely desperation cycle continues.  I know it could be me one day, struggling to get to grips with my Google Glass and ducking out the way of Amazon drones.  But who knows what they've been through, what they've seen, how they coped? None of it through choice.

I was reminded of this the other day on finding a letter from 30 years ago written by my mum to an ex-teacher from her school who had serendipitously gone into the bookshop where she worked at the time. In it she explained about her first days at secondary school where she started in 1939, amid pupils from several other schools who hadn't been evacuated.

“...It was a trying time as we spent a great part of the day in the sand-bagged cloisters of the school building trying to learn normal lessons with air-raids in progress...

In 1943 we were still experiencing bombing raids and I have a very strong memory of the day we received news of the death of our classmate, Pauline Egglesfield, who had been suffocated in the ruins of her home in Ilford. I also remember returning home one afternoon and as I neared the long avenue which led to my house I could see a dark plume of smoke. I flew home, that long mile, to discover that incendiaries had destroyed a nearby farm. Ilford received the highest percentage of doodle-bug damage, being at the range where most of the dreaded flying bombs eventually blew up”

Still, it wasn't all about the bombs:

...Uniforms were available but had to be bought with clothing coupons. I remember going to a very old fashioned drapers store to select the gym tunic. Mother would make the square-necked blouses and summer dresses. But, oh! The terrible little hats. This last creation was jammed down flat on my head nearly over my eyes. Eventually the girls managed to rearrange these little cloth affairs in a more flattering shape – but I almost ran away when I discovered they had to be worn at all times travelling back and forth to school.”

Glad to see my mum had the same thoughts about school uniform as I did.

Radiohead: Bones (not The Bends!)
I'm not usually a big fan of Radiohead, but this.... I think it's stunning.


  1. This is a good one C...your mother gets more interesting with every anecdote.

    I recently lost an elderly friend. He and I had been friends for 15 years..and it could be a very trying relationship. He had a troubled upbringing and life...Faulkner couldn't have done him any worse. I knew he was going into a dark spell when he'd start making up stories about having his genitals abused...back in high school, by some people in the neighborhood, by nurses. He had some money of his own but, he was from an old family in the Delta and he obsessed about the wealth of his cousins...which was tiresome and rude. He had pathological issues with women and the only time I ever stopped talking to him was when he called Martha a bitch. We patched it up though...and were back on terms for the last few years of his life. I stopped by to see him the day before he died...he was sick but he was always sick. All he wanted to talk about was my red britches.

    We have "the wa-ahr"...funnily enough it's pronounced wa-ahr most of the time. You may know it as the American Civil War...a ridiculous and loaded description that has criminally entered common parlance even down here. It was lincoln's war...War Between the States but, mainly it's just the Wa-ahr. Maybe Waaaaa-aaahr.

    I have a guess about the fixation on the First World War in Britain. There had been middle-class participation in the Boer War 15 years earlier but nothing like the scale of the First World War. European males had spent almost the entire 19th century in some form of military service...with conscription (and a lot of wars..despite it being viewed as a period of peace). It wasn't the case in Britain...warfare was fought on the edges of Empire and was an activity for the lowest and higher classes...and natives. It wasn't something that really bothered the daily lives of Britons...unless there was a real disaster like Isandlwana or the death of Gordon. So it's really the first time that Britain goes to least since Napoleon.

    My great-grandfather Bartlam is the only late comer to America. Leaving Birmingham, England in 1912....but, in 1915 he went to Canada so he could fight for King and Country. To hear my Daddy tell his mind and heart he never left England.

    1. Thanks Erik, sounds like you really did have the patience of a saint with that elderly friend... he was very lucky to have you.
      I would like to have been taught about the history of both world wars from a social, human perspective at school. Actually we didn't even touch on them at all! My mum said she couldn't watch 'Blackadder Goes Forth' (have you seen that over there?) because she found it too upsettingly near to the truth - although not born until 1929 she of course would have been made aware of what her own parents went through in WW1....

    2. Blackadder has mad appearances in various forms on our televisions but not with any consistency. The funniest thing I've ever seen Atkinson in was Thin Blue Line...that show made me howl was an exchange about agoraphobia.

      Rather than bore your readers with my own tedious historiagraphical concerns...I'll bore my own readers with it. That I could talk about all day...the First World War I spend the next month on.

      I don't think there's a more dramatic moment in Western (and by exstentsion world) history since the Thirty Years War. Much of what came before and everything after comes into its sharpest focus at that moment.

    3. Evidence of my fixation is here in these comments that have gotten the wrong war...doh! I've got the anniversary on my brain I guess.

    4. Well you've inadvertently brought to light the fact that the phrase 'the war' seems to refer to both in a way! Because it's within more people's living memory now I automatically think first of WWII, but with only 21 years between the end of one and start of next there was that time a few years ago when there were a number of people around who'd lived through both. I think 'The war' could just as easily be 'The wars'. And my sentiment here is the same... my grandparents, my great-grandparents, yours too, just ordinary folk, went through all that, got old...

      - If they ever show 'Blackadder Goes Forth' I recommend it, btw

  2. Fascinating, C. Like many folk of my generation, I was brought up on stories of the war(s). My parents both experienced The Blitz and Dad served in the army for 12 years, though he did miss WW 2 being a year too young. I have the utmost admiration for what people ad to through back then and feel certain that we no longer have the backbone or moral fortitude to do the same. Having said that, I constantly find myself frustrated by older people and must remind myself that'll be me one day (if I'm lucky). I know something - I'll never be the man my Dad is.

    1. Thanks SB, it sounds as if you feel similarly to me. My dad was too young for WWII as well - unlike my mum he was evacuated (to Aberdare) but he was conscripted to the Army and it's hard to imagine how he even coped with that, being a shy, quiet pacifist! I guess the experiences of our ancestors show how people deal with whatever is thrown at them when they have no choice. Perhaps we could find that same backbone and moral fortitude if our lives depended on it - who knows?!

  3. My wife's granddad was called up someway into the war. He'd avoided it because he was actually a bricklayer and was considered "needed" at the beginning to build the barracks, airfields etc. that were needed. That is the reason why he left Lincs and headed south, first to London then to Kent and why my mother-in-law grew up in Kent and hence why I'm married to his granddaugther.

    Anyway - he was called up and plonked in the artillary. He was part of a 25 pounder gun crew. That was pretty much all I knew for many years after I'd become an adjunct to his family. Once when one of the big memorial things was going on in Portsmouth about the D-Day landing (must have been the 50th I think) I offered to drive him down there if he wanted to go.

    He rounded on my "Why the ******* hell would I want to do that?" He apologised but as we sat in his conservatory drinking tea that day he told me the story of his war. How he landed on D Day in the first wave of artillery to back up the infantry that landed some hours before - how he lost half the crew before getting out the water, reformed with another crew and lost half them before getting off the beach. Then the long long marches they undertook - the night in a barn he woke to see a German stood over him - probably a policeman I know now and how he and his mate fought hand to hand with that man. He gave me his dagger that he took off him! I sold it in Brighton some years after his death, I didn't like it being around our then young son and wanted it somewhere appreciated - that was how I now know it was police from the tassels and markings on it when I sold it. Then the march towards Berlin. He was away from home for so long and no communication that honestly at one point his wife had accepted he was dead and not coming back and started dating a friend of his.

    I sat and I listened and I never spoke to him again. The pain and anguish was obvious. He just looked at me and said "I pray you never have to fight. Frankly if it is nuclear elimination that'll be a good thing, all over in 4 mins"

    Perhaps it is good we have that preoccupation still? I don't know but I'll never forget that cup of tea.

    My Dad was never called up - protected as he worked in the dockyard and was too young at the start. Found a great picture of him in his Home Guard kit the other day... couldn't help by look at the screen and say "Stupid boy"... ;-)

    1. That's moving stuff.... A very real example of the way ordinary people dealt with things very few of us can imagine now. I've watched some of those 'Veteran' programmes and never failed to be moved to tears by those old boys, some over 100 years old, telling the most awful stories. Thanks for writing about yours so vividly.

  4. As with all of your very best posts, this excellent piece (and fascinating comments) has been on my mind for the past couple of days. My thoughts turn again and again to Uncle Ted, my step-Grandfather, the biggest, strongest man I've ever known. He fought in both World Wars and seemed to be carved from stone from my youthful perspective, yet his tears would flow as he remembered fallen comrades on Armistice Day. Uncle Ted was cruelly cut down himself by a stroke leaving this proud man totally reliant on others in his final years, which he found intolerable. He grew up at a time when there were any barely cars on the road and died having seen a man walk on the moon.

    1. Thank you... and your account of Uncle Ted is fascinating and so moving too. I never want to lose sight of the fact that the oldest people whom we (using the term generally!) so easily disregard as being of no further 'use' to society are still human, and have in many cases experienced the extremes of existence to a far greater degree than successive generations. Your Uncle Ted very much included. I love your final summing up of the expanse of his life experience. (How will ours be described I wonder?!)

  5. I wonder. Mine will probably be, 'He was born in a time where there were still two postal deliveries per day and died when he failed to evade an Amazon drone'.

    1. :-) Brilliant! That's about the size of it for us lot!


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