I thought that I had lost this superb piece of writing by Nokamis when the good ship MyT sank. I’m relieved that I was able to find it again. It still says it all for me at this time of year.
‘It’s cold here, colder than on the tube coming up, colder than the short walk from the station. At least, it seems so. A capricious wind is whipping the downed leaves in golden whirlwinds round my feet. I’m feeling the cold particularly badly because I’m not wearing a coat. My funereal black mohair overcoat is gracing a hook in Florida, and I’m not sporting my natty bright red goose-down lined parka, just didn’t seem right.
There are a few “youngsters”. Mums with pushchairs and slightly puzzled expressions, partners with hands in their pockets, shuffling their feet, rubbing their hands, turning up their collars. But mostly they are all “of an age” And that now means that they are, save for a few, very old indeed.
As you age you slowly disappear, I don’t mean that you get shorter, or frailer, though you mostly do. I mean that other people, younger people, start finding you transparent. When you speak you are not heard, when you gesticulate nobody notices you. When you smile people look uncomfortable, not knowing whether you are exhibiting an interest in them or simply experiencing an involuntary facial rictus. It is a fact of life. And it’s as solid as a concrete wall, impossible for others to see behind.
Except for a few, a very few, moments. Then we see them, as they really are. They expand in front of us, turning from inconsequential oldies into something different, something very different. And we are made uncomfortable by their transformation. Cowed into an uneasy argument with ourselves. In the pub that evening the conversation amongst those too young to know about it is always the same, about the war, about what it must have been like, what they must have been like. And because we do not, cannot, know, we fall silent, and look at our shoes, and get a round in, and talk about the footie. It’s as though we have come across a group of people guarding a very personal, special secret. Our curiosity impels us to know a little more, and, as we become aware of this, to us, secret past, we are, by degrees, surprised, then admiring then, often, astonished. As they march past it is obvious that they are not seeing us at all, they are sharing special memories and times together. Communing with their own, with those here and gone before. Folk just like us, and totally unlike us. They are what we are not, can never be. Their circumstances were so different from those that have come after them that the twenty five years that seperate them from their children might as well be a thousand. To many under twenty we might as well speak of Imhotep or King Tut. The marchers do not care a fig about that of course, but on days like today we do. They are proud, and they have reason.
It’s not that they were heroes, not many of them, at least, not by their own standards. But, by God, they were tougher and braver than us! And we know it. And, because we know it, we like to consider such virtues as unimportant, or irrelevant. Most days we get away with it, but not today, not today we don’t.
The old girl in the nursing home, come on! You know her, we all do: The little plastic cup with the lid on it, the frame beside the high chair, the care assistants ” How are you today? Rosy, drink your orange juice, It’s fish tonight, you like fish don’t you dear?”
Look again, do you see her? 22, and a cracker! Flaxen hair beneath the tin hat, running up the steps from the basement shelter at MOD main building with the all-clear for a cup of tea and a sandwich at the little stall outside Embankment station, a quick flirt with Lt Bannister from Naval Ops then back to the grind. Tubing home to Brixton each evening, never knowing, day on day, whether the little basement flat will still be standing. Every day for three years for Christ’s sake!
Or Mr Richmond, “sprightly old chap. used to be anyway, but since his wife died, and he had that fall, he doesn’t get out much at all. Can’t see very well now, hope he’s alright. Haven’t seen anything of him meself for a few months come to think of it.”
Mr Richmond didn’t always need his spectacles, not when he was 19 and stuck up the arse end of a Lancaster he didn’t, not when he was on the right end of two .5″ Brownings he didn’t. Can you imagine? Having survived that first astonishing, appalling, gut wrenching terror of a trip to the Ruhr, having got back to the mess, and his bed, and his breakfast. Having discovered that Dicky and Frank and Reg and Clifford hadn’t made it? Then knowing, yes, knowing, that he was going to have to do it all over again, and again, and again. Until it wasn’t Dicky, or Reg, but himself. How? How did he stay sane, how did Mr Richmond avoid simply running away? How did he not soil himself, week in, week out, in that tiny turret, with the sheer terror of it? They made a little over 7,000 Lancaster bombers in the Second World War. The Germans shot down 3,250 of them. How are you at percentages? They each had seven Mr Richmonds on board.
They make light of it, they downplay every bit of it. It’s always somebody else who was brave, never them. They endured things that we simply cannot imagine, then, after some 2,100 days, they put down the tools of their trade, and went back to redecorating the spare room, reading their paper, tending the rose bushes, the little job at the library, or the buses,and their dreadful neighbours. And we think that our youngsters are flexible, adaptable, “in spite of being bent double by the stress of modern life” They exchanged the Western desert for the little bungalow in Ilfracombe,the field hospital in Burma for the two weeks in Bognor, as though nothing had happened. If they hadn’t made that extraordinary effort our world would have been unimaginably different, I’ve never met anybody who has seriously suggested that it would have been better.
I do not know, cannot know, what they think of what we have made of the World, their World. I know of course what I would think were I one of them, but I am not. I do not have their fortitude, their resourcefulness, their courage and, above all, their good humour. I do not have their spirit or their good grace, and, like all people with great hearts, they do not know that they have these qualities either.
But they do have, the next time you see an old dear with a shopping bag standing on a bus, or an old fellow peering about in the shopping centre trying to find a bench to rest for a bit, why not look for the golden curls, or smell the cordite and find them a space. It’s a little enough thing to do. A privilege really. After all, it’s a pretty good chance that you, like me, owe them rather more than that.’