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Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Day War Broke Out – and a few reflections inspired by September 3rd.

September 3rd. For me it will always be ‘the day that war broke out’. The war had been over for four years when I was born, but I feel I grew up in its shadow. My father spoke of it, at length, throughout my early life – as did many other adults. It was a common subject. When I started work in the 1960s and `70s I found myself surrounded by men who’d fought for their country and in many cases wanted to tell me about it. I was happy to listen. I’ve worked with men who served in Europe and Asia on land, at sea and in the air; I’ve worked with veterans of the Burma campaign, and with former prisoners of war. I once shunted trains around York station with a Ukrainian who had to fight first with the Germans then with the Russians. I worked in a chocolate factory with a Pole who lived on the streets of Warsaw and escaped to the West as a twelve-year-old. They all told me stories, quite a few of which I have recorded in writing.

I think a lot of these men were glad to have found an audience. I was interested in what they had to say. I asked questions. I’d been brought up by a father who served six years in France, North Africa and Italy. I grew up listening to stories of what was, I feel safe in saying, the best time of his life. Never a year passes without my remembering some of the tales he told me: of getting lost during the retreat to Dunkirk and having to make his way to St Nazare and get a ship from there; of crossing Biscay in a Force 10 two years later, en route to North Africa; of the German bomb that was heading straight for him when it struck the branch of an olive tree and was diverted a few feet, thus saving his life – and mine, as he liked to remind me. There were other tales – of feasts on African beaches when the tangerine harvest arrived, of operas in La Scala after the end of hostilities, of the first casualty his unit suffered when a dispatch rider had the top of his scalp sliced off by a piece of shrapnel - ‘And it scooped all his brains out and left an empty skull.’ There were funny stories too – like the one about the fellow soldier who, when they were advancing through France, spied a gorgeous woman in the roadside and ‘told her in no uncertain terms what he’d like to do to her.’ Poor bloke: she turned out to be a fluent English-speaker. She turned on the bemused Tommy and said with an angelic smile, ‘Would you really? How very interesting.’

Being the youngest in a family of five, I realise now that I was privileged to hear a lot of stories that my father had never shared with my older siblings. We all had difficult relationships with him. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. He simply wasn’t a very good father. But as I’ve got older I have started to cherish the memory of the stories he told me. It’s a very human impulse, to talk about one’s life experience. I understand it. It’s what drove me to be a writer. In my father’s later years, when I’d invite him up north to visit, I often found it very difficult to find ‘safe’ subjects for conversation. I mean safe in the sense of subjects that kept him away from bitter recollections of family life, stern pronouncements on morality, vehement assertions about God, the Devil and the life hereafter – and of course politics: you simply had to keep him away from politics at all costs. His wartime experiences, however, were good neutral material. Get him reminiscing about his time in uniform and  he’d settle down with his pipe and go through all the familiar tales I’d heard so many times. The night he watched an artillery exchange over by Vimy Ridge, ‘the most fantastic firework display I’d ever seen’. The time one of his drivers got under his vehicle to fix a brake-pipe, and another lorry drove up the side of the stationary convoy, crushing the driver’s legs: ‘and when he screamed, the driver put his brakes on and reversed, crushing them all over again.’ There were glimpses of life in occupied Italy – of women scuttling from house to house in a bitter Milanese winter clutching baked potatoes in their hands to keep warm, of housewives forcing raw pasta through a sieve to make spaghetti. There was the sight of Vesuvius erupting in 1944, and the surprise snowfall, tinted red by the dust that had spewed out of the volcano. There was the night out in the bar that doubled as a brothel, and his horror at the men taking turns to visit the one youthful, and beautiful, whore.

September 3rd. I doubt that this day means anything to my children and their generation, but I will always commemorate it in my own way, even if that consists of nothing more than remembering some of the stories I was told.

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I had intended to talk about the countryside, and what good shape it’s in after the best summer we’ve had in six or seven years. But right now time is short: we’re off to Spain on Friday, cycling in the mountains above Alicante, so I’ll have to make do with a picture of our part of England and how it’s looking like right now


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