I stumbled on a quote from Winston Churchill at the beginning of the chapter of a book I was reading. He was talking to the boys of Harrow, his old school, just after the Battle of Britain… the leader of the free world with his back against the wall, found time to talk to schoolboys in the middle of a World War when his capital city was being pounded in the Blitz…
He said: “Do not let us speak of darker days, let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are the greatest days our country has ever lived.” (I can just hear him growling through his speech impediment and his false teeth)
Those words made me think of those sterner days, and what stern days we have all lived through since the end of the long peace from Waterloo to the First World War.
My ancestors lived peaceful lives between the downfall of one warlord – Napoleon in 1815, and the attack of another warlord – the Kaiser in 1914.
But things changed for them then, as for everyone, and my family would be a microcosm of that change. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli of tragic memories, my great- uncle was one of eight hundred men who ‘went down, “as my grandmother would say – in the Vanguard, when it exploded and sank in 1917.
My step-grandfather was one of the 60,000 men killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, when he was shot as he stepped out in the first line after the whistle blew to advance in the early morning sunshine. Unlike that heart-stopping last scene in ‘Blackadder goes forth’, they didn’t run, but stepped out to a measured pace, and were mown down by machine guns raking along the long lines of men moving across the grass as they walked into the ‘jaws of death’….
These were peaceful men, called up from their homes and villages to fight for their country and for peace – they thought – unlike the highly trained aggressive army of martial men which faced them. They had actually thought that the Battle of the Somme would end the carnage.
The next generation faced the sterner days of another warlord, Hitler. My father escaped from France a fortnight after Dunkirk, and then spent the rest of the war as a famed Desert Rat, escaping from the siege of Tobruk, fighting across North Africa and then up through Italy. After the war he was stationed at Belsen, the concentration camp where I joined him to live with him for the first time since he had left when I was ten months old.
His brother served with the Long Range Desert Group which fought behind the German lines in North Africa waging guerrilla war. Captured, and ending up in prisoner of war camp in Italy, he escaped and hid and starved in the mountains, until rejoining the Allied Armies as they fought their way up Italy. My only other uncle manned anti –invasion posts around England before becoming part of the liberation forces in Europe. He listened in horror as they drove away to the sound of gun-shots after handing over Russian PoW’s back to the Soviets, who shot them all, there and then. My former father- in- law, a padre, landed on the beaches of Normandy and was so badly wounded that he lived with the after- effects for the rest of his life.
My first memory was of watching the Battle of Britain – not that I knew it was – I just saw white crosses diving across the sky and puffs of white. I was looking for dogs, since I heard the adults saying there’s another dog-fight. That summer has remained in the memory of those who lived through it – even me at two – as being one of unforgettable beauty. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote of England then: “The light that beat down on her meadows, shining with emerald loveliness, was scarcely of this world… the streets of her cities, soon to be torn and shattered, were bathed in a calm serene sunshine…”
Later, I cowered in bed hearing the dreadful wail of the air- raid sirens, trailed downstairs in my night clothes to crouch in the air-raid shelter, listened for the planes overheard, saw with terror the flames in the red sky, and the next morning gathered up shrapnel in the garden and once, stood on the edge of a huge bomb crater, marvelling. And finally traversed bombed- out Germany on the train to Belsen.
I spent much of the rest of my childhood living in army camps around the world, hearing the sound of reveille across the fields where the soldiers lived in barracks, and drifting off to sleep to the haunting strains of the Last Post.
Inevitably I joined the army, as did both my brothers, who saw service in Aden, Borneo, Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar… and as my first child was born, my army husband was posted at twenty four hours notice to a sudden outbreak of warfare in Cyprus. I came out of the labour ward to find a telegram: “Gone to Cyprus”. So my daughter felt the effects of war as soon as she came into this world and didn’t meet her father until she was six months old. Later her father served in Hong Kong and Germany and Northern Ireland.
My grandchildren are the fifth generation and the first not to feel the effects of war. They‘re aware of violence – who could not be after the world-wide shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But like other children of the West, they seem to see their future and their challenges differently. Unlike the children of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, my fortunate grandchildren have known only peace, and tucked away in the farthest corner of the globe, they have optimism. They do not see these days as stern ones, though the children in war-torn Middle East must do. They do not see the anxieties that older people agonise over, pollution, dwindling food supplies, over-population, melting ice-caps, ravaged oceans…
They see instead the solutions. One grandson, having gained a degree in philosophy, transferred his search for truth to science, and from first deciding to tackle world hunger by experimenting with growing food from the spores of mushrooms ( I’m sure I’ve hopelessly oversimplified that ) he’s now embarked on a project to discover new forms of anti-biotics, and combat disease.
The other youngsters all have a serene belief that science, and creative understanding will solve the problems that loom so large for older generations. They’re not worried! I find that’s magic. Is this because they live in this peaceful place in the Antipodes, or do all young people have this calm belief in the future?
A friend told us that she had always loudly proclaimed at home that it is selfish and self-indulgent to have a child and bring another soul into this troubled world. She told us with great joy, that her fifteen year old grandson said he didn’t agree. “Life is a gift” this wonderful boy told her. Hearing that wisdom was a gift to us oldies.
Hearing that made me feel too, we can all rest easy. Young people know where they’re going, and know what they can do. Though we hear of mayhem and misery every day, if we oldies step back from it, avoid reading the stuff that make us sad (young people don’t seem to read newspapers! ), we can remember to be as positive and imaginative as that young generation.
And maybe too, to bowdlerise Churchill’s words – these are the greatest days our world has ever lived, when consciousness takes the leap into other dimensions of unity and peace. Christopher Fry wrote that: “Affairs are now soul size,” and that we are ready to:” take the longest stride of soul men ever took.”
This is what we can feel in the hearts of this generation that does not want war and dissension – the domain of the grey tired thinking of politicians of old. Young people want peace and hope and they deserve it as they face the new challenges that baffle older people. “Young people”, as a friend once wrote in Latin, in a card to me, “are the hope and salvation of the world”. And they need all our loving support and belief in them, as they take that long stride of soul into a future we oldies cannot even imagine.
Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some dainty ham sandwiches left over from a little gathering. Rather than waste them I had them for supper. I whipped up an egg with salt and pepper and a soupcon of milk, and poured it onto a plate. I dipped the sandwiches in on both sides, and the egg mixture glued them together. Fried in a little butter, they were delicious. And no waste!
Food for thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire.