Wednesday 9 March 2022

A realisation that chills me to the bone

1938. What does it mean to you? That was the year that Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich with a piece of paper, announcing on his return that he'd secured "Peace in our time". Shortly afterwards, Adolf Hiter invaded Czechoslovakia. Hold that thought for just a second......

I know very little about my father's eraly life. I know he was born in Blackall, in the outback of Queensland. His father was an engineer who worked on goldfields. His mother I know little about. I've heard conflitcing stories. In 1938, my father was 21. To the best of my knowledge, he was working as steam engineer on goldfields in the outback. He told me that he was a pioneer until he was 22, so he wouldn't have drunk alcohol. I knew he was a decent cricketer, playing at a competetive level, but I have no idea who for. I don't know if he'd ever travelled outside of Queensland. I know for certain he'd never been outside Australia. His mother, my grandmother, Catherine Tichborne had passed away in 1937 in a road accident. We know my Grandfather took that very badly. My Dad never, ever talked about it. 

I have no idea whether my father was aware of the happenings in Munich as he worked on the goldfield. The place was remote. He told stories of water arriving on a weekly train. Workers were tempted with the offer of "all the beer you could drink", only to find that water was the really sought after commodity. There was talk that he had a fiance, but we know nothing of that, beyond a few wry comments from my mother and an embarrassed silence from my father. What were his aspirations then? I knew he dreamed of seeing the world. He told me he aspired to be test match bowler for Australia. His father was an engineer, who'd settled in Australia, but had been born in Canada. We knew he worked in the oil industry and had drilled wells in Canada, Romania and Australia. We knew he had switched to boring artesian wells for farmers in the outback, disillusioned with the oil indyustry, who he believed to be theives and gangsters. I'm pretty sure he inspired my father with his tales of travelling. In those days,  commercial air travel was beyond the means of ordinary people. Travel was largely something you did for work. Getting from Australia to the UK would have involved a six week boat journey. Tourism to Austraila was not even really dreamed of for ordinary people. As Mr Chaimberlain put pen to paper in Munich, I can only speculate what my Dad was doing. Working, playing cricket and dreaming. What does any 21 year old man dream of.  Hold that thought.....

On Sunday, I travelled up to Manchester with my son. He's 21. He's doing a maths and economics degree at a top London University. He gets  his intelligence from my wife (certainly not me). We went to watch Manchester City play Manchester United. We are city fans. We had a wonderful day. We met at 10.30, had a tea and a light breakfast. We arriverd in Manchester at around 14.30, had a couple of beers and a delicious burger in a local pub. We then went to the match, which was wonderful. After, we strolled back to Piccadilly station. I had a pint, he's more sensible and had a drink of water. It was a long trip back, arriving at Euston just before 11pm. We made our way down to the underground. He took the Victoria Line back to his digs, I took the Northern Line to Burnt Oak. As we parted, he gave me a bighug and said "Thanks Dad, I've had a brilliant day". When it comes down to it, for all the things I've done in my life, that is what we really live for. To see our children happy. Hold that thought.....

As I boarded the tube I was quite euphoric. We'd had a wonderful day. We were happy, for a few hours we had no care in the world. In life, there are sadly very few such moments and they slip through our fingers like dry sand. As I'd not had a drink since we boarded the train in Manchester, we had a tea on the train, I started feeling melancholic. In such moments, I often think of my Dad, who passed away in 1987. We never really bonded over anything. He wasn't a football fan. He sponsored Edgware Town football club through his business and took me to see them, but he'd rarely watch, he had no interest in football. He'd buy me a bovril or a lemonade and disappear. A couple of the guys who worked for him played for the team and I'd stand with them if they weren't playing or their friends and family if they were. He took me to Cricket at Lords for a couple of test matches, but I didn't really enjoy it. If I had my time again, I'd have asked him to teach me to fly aeroplanes, he was a qulaified pilot instructor, but he didn't even teach me to drive a car, as he had no patience with me. Don't get me wrong, I loved him, the only thing we ever really did together when I was a teenager was to play the odd game of snooker at the Mill Hill Services Club. I loved it, but I had other interests, so it was a rare occurrance. My Father couldn't understand my lack of interest in travel. I had no interest in travelling. When I finished my A Levels and moved to Sweden, he was gobsmacked. I only went because I'd met a girl there. I had no interest in Sweden, just seeing her. I was out there for six months. When I returned, my parents had gone to Australia for an extended holiday. I stayed at their house for a while. When they returned, I was in the dog house, as I'd had a party and the place had been wrecked. I moved out. Now I appreciate just how difficult I was. As a teeneager, I just thought it was all someone else's fault. 

As I churned over this difficult relationship, I recalled the last time I saw my Dad. In 1986, he'd had health problems. I was living elsewhere, we had made up our differences. I'd visited him in hospital and he looked awful. The penny had dropped. This man who I had spent my life in awe of, was in fact mortal. I was convinced he was going to die. I prayed and said "Dear Lord, please let him get better, even if it's only so I can take him for a curry and a beer". He recovered. In November 1986, my mum went to visit her sister. I was working for BT and making good money. I told him Iw as taking him out for a beer and a curry. We met at the club, had a game of snooker, then went for a curry. We ended up at home drinking whisky and sitting up until 3am. It was the only time I had a proper, grown up night with my Dad. It was wonderful. I was so grateful to the Good Lord for the opportunity. My prayer had been answered. Shortly after, my parents went to Florida to visit my sister for the winter, as they did most years. I never saw him again. Be careful what you pray for, God may just take you at your word.

As I mulled on these thoughts, I realised that Dad was 21 as the world plunged into 1938. There are many parallels. The most chilling is that my son is 21. Whatever my Dad thought the future held for him in 1938, I'm sure that even in his wildest dreams he never thought that the world would erupt into war, he'd become an RAF pilot, he'd bomb the very oil wells that his father had drilled in Romania. He never dreamed that he'd end up seeing Bucharest as a prisoner of war, escape and end up married and living in Mill Hill. For my Father, the war opened up a whole world. His elder brother never left Queensland. After the war, my Father worked as commercial pilot until my mother tired of him being away from home. None of this would have happened without the second world war. As with 1938, a dictator has gone mad and has attacked another country. As in 1938, the west sits on its hands. I'm not advocating WW3. No matter how terrible WW2 was, it would seem like a tea party if the USA and Russia start trading nuclear warheads. I thought about the journey my Dad made. In London we are living in a prime target. A single nuclear warhead would wipe out myself and all of my children. All their dreams, aspirations and plans. Maybe if we moved to the outback of Australia, where my Dad was born we'd be safe. No one would bother nuking the outback. But who wants to run and hide. 

Mum and Dad on VE Day at Piccadilly Circus

When WW2 ended in 1945, my father was a very different man to the 21 year old who was working as a steam engineer. Seven years. The map of the world redrawn. Living in a different hemisphere. He'd become an orphan in 1941 when his father passed away. The circumstances are not known to me, I've heard all manner of storys. My father told us he'd died in a hotel fire. An Aussie cousin confided that it may have been an accident related to depression and alcoholism, following the death of my Grandmother. By 1945, my Father was no longer a pioneer, smoking 60 Capstan Medium cigarettes a day and with a healthy apetite for a drink. He was married and an RAF Officer. 

It made me think of 2029. Seven years from now. Where will my son be? He'll be 28. Will the Ukraine war be seen as a sad, closed chapter or will be the start of the end? Where will my son be? How will this affect him. Will the speach we heard in the Commons yesterday by Volodymyr Zelensky be recalled as defining Churchillian moment, will it be a forgotten chapter? Will we see Putin as a Hitler type figure or a Kruyshev, who blinked in the Cuban missile crises, destroying his own credibility for ever, but saving us all from a nuclear war? If I had a Tardis and could track down my Dad in 1938, if I told him what he'd be doing in 1945, he'd presumably think I was bonkers. 

What chills me to the bone is that both my father and my son are living/lived their 21st year against the backdrop of a deranged dictator invading their neighbours as the world stands by. In 2021 we show our disapproval by closing McDonalds in Moscow. I just hope and pray to God that Vladimir Putin really fancies a Big Mac and decides to throw in the towel. It may sound absurd but, perhaps, just perhaps, it is no more absurd than that 21 year old, callow Aussie youth ending up in Mill Hill running his own crash repair business. I wish I could see something positive coming from the devastation we see. 

When it comes down to it, the most important thing in life is that moment around 11pm on Sunday night. The hug between father and son. It is devastating that for so many Ukranian and Russian fathers and sons will never again have such a hug. I recall a story my Mother told me about her father. He was an Irishman, a Dubliner, who's family were all staunch nationalists. He left Ireland as the family were getting stress from the British Authorities and ended up being conscripted and fighting in the trenches of the Somme with the Cavalry, as a horseman. 

He told my mother and father of an incident, where he'd been insulted for being Irish by an Englishman. My Grandfather, a very eloquent man, asked the young man if he was an English nationalist and patriot. The young man replied "Yes and proud of it". My Grandfather replied "Let me tell you a story about Proud Nationalists. I fought in the trenches in the Somme. In those trenches, there were proud nationalists from England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Belgium and America. In the other trenches, there were Prussians, Germans and Austrian proud patriots. Do you know how many died in those trenches, do you know how many were never found, never buried? Do you know how many mothers cried and never saw their sons again. That is what being a proud nationalist does. I am a proud citizen of the world and I want angry young men to put down their guns and live their lives, not die in trenches in the rain. If you'd seen what I have seen you would understand, but I hope you never have to". Hold that thought.....

Here is a song I recorded, the video sums up my view of war.

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