Archive for November, 2008

Still at it

Monday, November 10th, 2008
Letter home

Letter home

It’s the time for remembrance. 90 years since the end of the first war – The Great War as my grandparents and great aunts called it. And they had been through it. I watched the remembrance service and it becomes more poignant each year. The story of the mother and sister of a 20 year old soldier, dead in Afghanistan haunts me. My own sons are of the same age as the youngsters dying there and in Iraq. I found it unbearably sad when she told of the visit from the police and army officer – “please tell me it isn’t Joe.”

My father was a prisoner of war having been picked up by a German patrol in the Libyan desert where he and his navigator had spent days after they were shot down. He was transported up through Alabania and eventually to Stalag Luft VIIB prison camp. That was in 1942 – he had been too young to join up at the start. He spent his 21st birthday shackled to the next prisoner on their way to Silesia. His cards home to his great aunt, censored of course, arrived each month and each says mostly the same thing – “we are pretty A1 here”, “we are getting on well” and always, always, “I expect to be home soon”, “not long now”. All through ’42, ’43 and ’44 – the last card I have was sent in December ‘44. Shortly afterwards he was part of a famous death march out of the camp when many of his friends died. He told my brothers and I of the pathetic effort to take everything they had and he gave us the mental picture of his saxophone lying in the snow when he jettisoned anything which wasn’t absolutely necessary.

On Maundy Thursday 1945, aged 23 he closed his eyes in the camp where they had marched to. Wracked with dysentery he knew he would die and thought only that he would have liked to see his parents and aunt and uncle again and he would have liked to have studied medicine. Oh well.

On Good Friday the Americans arrived, hosed them down, put him and others onto the hospital trains and sent him home to spend 8 months in hospital. He was discharged just before Christmas to go home to his uncomprehending parents in Croydon. On Christmas afternoon he went into bleak, bombed Croydon centre and came across two German prisoners of war waiting for repatriation. He took them home for tea because, as he explained, they were the only people he had met that would really understand what he felt. He left that example, he and my mother employed a German au-pair for us children less than 10 years after the war and he told us “never, ever, forget that what happened in Germany could happen here if we aren’t vigilant.”

Oh, and he did study medicine too.

Those were the days

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

Gosh, I’m coming all over retro. The pre-recession atmosphere speaks to my waste- not-want- not side; newspaper articles about how home cooking, which I do already, is the new eating out, eschewing plastic bags, which I have done for years, and not flying away for weekend breaks, is the right and also fashionable thing to do are making me feel that I’m back in a mainstream world where I have some remnants of the map from the last time. Also, I’m not so sure as once I was that everyone else is having a great debt fuelled time dining in fabulous restaurants in exotic parts of the world dressed in the latest fashions. So I’m feeling rather cheerier than sometimes and especially so since the Americans have done us all the favour of electing Barack Obama.

And here is a story to appeal to my inner hippy – alright, I know, it was only a phase. It’s about squatters. My first reaction, I must admit, was that of a mother of formerly teenage boys, when surveying their bedrooms. Slight disapproval of the mess in what looks like a rather lovely house. It’s apparently worth over 6 million pounds. Then I read that the business that owns the house, hadn’t even noticed their property had been taken over. So my second reaction reached back a few decades when people squatted houses that had stayed empty – and when friends occupied houses on an official basis before the housing associations transformed them into homes.

I don’t think houses should lie empty as part of an “investment portfolio”. I think they should be homes for people who will form proper communities. My London home was in street full of variety – we were the only English among Irish and Welsh. My neighbours were from St Lucia and from Jamaica and theirs from Barbados and Ireland. There were French and Indian and it was a real London community where we knew one another and thought enough to knock on doors and look out for each other. Sounds so cheesy but it was actually true.

Now those terraced houses, described when they were built at the beginning of the last century for occupation by two “fairly comfortable” families with “good ordinary earnings”, change hands for so much money that I doubt first-time buyers could live there.

So my heart lifted a bit to hear about the artists who have taken over the Mayfair Mansion and I thought I could probably overlook the drawing pins in the wall.