Tag Archives: Second World War

Visiting God’s First Stab at the E.U.

19 Apr

At first glance it looked like something from a medieval fantasy. In front of us stood two large, circular brick towers topped by cone- shaped, slate roofs. Long thin flags fluttered from the tips of the roofs. In between the sturdy towers was an arched brick passageway, decorated by 2 shining bands of terracotta tiles. The archway was mirrored by rows of small arched windows and was crowned with a fancy gable, complete with 3 ornamental towers. We expected a damsel in distress to appear from an upper window at any moment and Sir Lancelot to ride to the rescue on his white charger. Maybe I’m getting carried away but it was the sort of  building that evoked those sorts of romantic, mythical images. Only the cars and buses driving either side of the gateway spoilt this  pre-Raphaelite vision.

My friend, Ian, and I were visiting the picture-book city of Lubeck, in the north of Germany  near to the Baltic Sea. Many people have never heard of it, as it is not one of the more conventional tourist destinations. However, Lubeck’s  Altstadt ( old town) is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such as far back as 1987. It was the first place in northern Europe to be given this important accolade. We were standing in front of one of the main gateways to the medieval city – the Holstentor ( Holstein Gate). As we got close to it we noticed it wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as we first thought. One of the towers had sagged and was leaning inwards. Apparently, the gateway was built on marshy ground and so did not have  a firm foundation. Most have heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa but not many are aware of its Lubeck equivalent. There were once 4 such gateways, punctuating the city walls at each point of the compass. Now only 2 remain — the Holstentor on the west and the Burgtor in the north. They used to be protected by moats and outer fortifications. The tree-lined moat still remains, diverting water from the River Trave and turning the egg-shaped Altstadt into an island. The lovely old buildings of the Altstadt are often reflected in its waters. The Holstentor, much restored in the 19th and 21st centuries, has become one of the most famous symbols of Germany. Before the introduction of the Euro, it featured on the back of the 50 DM banknote and also appeared on various postage stamps. Bizarrely, the old gateway is also frequently depicted in marzipan as Lubeck is where this sweet delicacy was invented using fine almonds imported from Italy. The ” marz” part of the name refers to St Mark’s in Venice. Watching our figures ( at least some of the time), we didn’t indulge!

That trading link with Venice gives us a clue as to why Lubeck was so important in the Middle Ages and could build such grand buildings as the Holstentor and the 7 spired churches that spear the skyline. Lubeck was one of northern Europe’s leading trading cities from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Beyond the Holstein gate is a whole medley of beautiful medieval architecture, mainly in brick, as stone was not close at hand. Wealthy merchants built lovely homes decorated with an array of ornamental gables. They erected: massive, brick churches in the French Gothic style, ornate, frescoed hospitals and charitable institutions, and a picturesque Town Hall ( Rathaus) which is still in use. The Rathaus, built mainly in the 13th century, features inventive, alternate rows of red unglazed and black glazed bricks, shield- like, colourful coats of arms and 2 large holes to lessen wind resistance. Next to the Town Hall stands the enormous, twin towered Marienkirche, built by the merchants to show off their vast wealth and to hopefully book their place in heaven. It puts even the Cathedral ( or Dom) in the shade, the latter being perched on the outer edge of the city centre. This was a merchant city and even the church had to know its place.

In fact Lubeck was  the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a huge, successful trading alliance of  German-speaking cities. It reached its peak in the 15th century. Not all of these trading centres were in Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire as it used to be known. Those outside included: Amsterdam, Danzig ( now Gdansk), Bergen, Stockholm and Riga. The League came to control much of the trade in and around the Baltic and North Seas of northern Europe. It was just a loose federation and worked in a cooperative spirit, based on mutual trust. Trading ties were strengthened by marriage and family connections. At its height the Hanseatic league included about 200 member cities. These included: London, Boston and Kings Lynn in England. The Hansa organisation owned very little but controlled much. Its power was based on a complex web of trading routes spanning the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the great rivers of northern Europe. In effect , it linked the Volga to the Thames, controlling an area from Novgorod to London. The Hansa merchants connected eastern and western Europe. The League defended its trade routes by raising armed fleets. They waged war if necessary if their interests were being threatened but largely they were a peaceful, organisation, concentrating on making money. The Hansa had their own commercial laws and had a sort of parliament to discuss mutual interests every year in Lubeck.  In recognition of its wealth, power and success, Lubeck was declared a Free Imperial City . Buildings such as the Holstentor, the Marienkirche and the Rathaus were designed to reflect this wealth and high status. As with every era, medieval architecture was mostly about showing off!

The age of the Hansa only came to an end when the focus of World trade moved from the Baltic and North Seas to the Atlantic Ocean after the discovery of the New World ( America) and new sea routes to India and the Far East. Naval defeat by Sweden and a disastrous intervention in a Danish Civil War just about finished it off. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt there –war is almost always a bad thing. Cooperation is usually preferable to confrontation.

In a way, the Hanseatic League, at its height, can be seen as an early version of the European Union. It linked cities from right across the continent in a  mainly peaceful, cooperative, economic organisation. So Lubeck was the medieval equivalent of the EU’s Brussels or Strasbourg. Although it did get involved in a few military conflicts, it can be argued that the League did a lot to keep the peace in northern Europe for significant periods of time, as it was in everyone’s interests to get on and reap the material rewards of trade. It’s much later successor, the EU, has also kept the peace in Europe since its inception in the late 1940’s, with the notable exception of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Yugoslavia, being a member of the former Communist block was not a member of the EU.  France and Germany who had gone to war 4 times in 140 years, wanted to put an end to the constant tit-for-tat conflicts by deliberately inter-meshing their economies at the end of the Second World War. Thus it would be in neither country’s interest to attack the other. Four other countries — Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy — joined Germany and France, in the European Coal and Steel Community. This later morphed into The Common Market, the European Economic Community and finally the European Union.

Britain, at first, stuck its nose up about joining a pan-European trading organisation. This was despite Winston Churchill’s stated vision of a united Europe. Maybe, like today’s British Euro-sceptics, politicians in the 1940s and early 50’s didn’t want to exchange British independence for European cooperation despite the latter’s promise of  continental peace and prosperity . They looked to the Empire, the Commonwealth and the so-called “Special relationship” with the Americans as reasons for not getting too closely involved with Europe, even though the latter was their own continent. It was only when the British Empire started to disappear rapidly and the relationship with the USA was severely dented after the 1956 Suez crisis  that the British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, did a dramatic U-turn and applied for British membership of the European club. Rebuffed, in the early 1960’s, by the French President Charles de Gaulle, who was still not convinced that the British displayed the right attitude to be good Europeans, it was another decade before Prime Minister Ted Heath finally led us into an expanded Common Market, a decision validated by the referendum of 1975 called by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. It’s ironic that Wilson called the Referendum mainly to conceal the splits in his own party over European membership. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The probable reason for the current 2016 referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership is probably so that PM David Cameron can by-pass the severe splits in his own Conservative party over Europe. So Britain’s whole membership of the EU is being put on the line because of Tory party squabbles!

Should we stay or should we go? The interminable debate rumbles on, with journalists rubbing their hands in glee at all the opportunities they have to exploit the politicians’ divisions. Having just returned from Lubeck, it seems strange that large numbers of Britons seem to think they would be better off by going it alone. The strongest economy in Europe, Germany, is not having this debate. The Germans are in for the duration. Despite its many problems the EU has delivered, as it had brought peace and prosperity to the German people as well as to much of Europe. Lubeck and the Hanseatic league was an early example of the advantages of cooperation over competition. Lubeck also contains a stark warning of the dangers of non-cooperation.

About a quarter of its lovely, historical centre was destroyed in a devastating bombing raid by the RAF on March 28th/29th, 1942. Yes, I know it was Hitler and the Germans who started it. And I also know that the attack on Lubeck was in part retaliation for the Nazi bombing of London, Coventry and other British cities. I am not qualified to make a proper judgement anyway, as I didn’t live through the horrors of the Second World War, being born a few years afterwards. However, I think it’s a great shame that both sides seemed to think it was fair game to attack and devastate beautiful, historic towns and cities with limited military or industrial significance. The German reaction to Lubeck was the equally appalling “Baedeker” raids on English historical and cultural centres such as : Canterbury, Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York. Later the British destroyed Hamburg and the beautiful city of Dresden  — and so the sad story goes on! I suppose the nearest modern equivalent is Islamic State vandalising the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria or the Taliban blowing up those sacred statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. The tragic Syrian civil war has also destroyed unique and precious historical cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Back in 1942, Lubeck lost over a quarter of the historic buildings in its Alstadt. 234 bombers dropped 160 tons of high explosives and 25,000 incenduries. Bomber Arthur Harris’s idea was to blow open the brick and copper roofs of the medieval buildings and then the incendiaries were dropped into the ruins to create a fire-storm. He used it as a test case for the similar bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. In some ways it could be viewed as Britain’s Guernica! To judge from his memoirs, he was very pleased with the results. Joseph Stalin was also pleased, expressing his delight at this “merciless killing.”

The German people have now rebuilt Lubeck, restoring or replacing the buildings destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, this now means that some non-descript modern buildings have spoilt the medieval completeness of the main square outside the Town Hall. The magnificent, twin-towered Marienkirche has also been rebuilt — the third largest church in Germany. The church was severely damaged in 1942 and we saw a sad photo of it burning. Both organs and much fine wood-carvings were lost. The restoration is impressive but one part has been deliberately left untouched. The bells in the south tower have been left where they smashed, half-melted, to the ground. They are a memorial to the tragedy of war. I have also visited Coventry and seen the ruins of its old cathedral standing next to the impressive new one, also acting as a memorial.

Lubeck is a beautiful, historical city. It has somehow survived the ravages of time and of modern warfare. We enjoyed walking the streets lined with 15th and 16th century gabled buildings. We enjoyed walking along the waterways and exploring little cobbled alleyways leading to secluded courtyards. We viewed impressive art and artefacts in the museums and enjoyed coffee and strudel in several of the excellent bakery/ cafes.( We weren’t always watching our waistlines!) It is a very civilised place to visit and we enjoyed our stay. Lubeck also reminded us of two important lessons of history  — the rich rewards of free trade in a time of peace and prosperity, and at the same time, the grave consequences of confrontation and war. The Hanseatic league was a medieval forerunner of today’s European Union. Both of these trading organisations have produced peace and prosperity for many.

Now I’m back in the United Kingdom and the constant din of the EU Referendum campaign. The 24 Hour news channels love it! Should we remain or should we leave?  That’s a question for every thinking person’s conscience. But the lessons of history, as reflected from my trip to Lubeck, suggest strongly to me that  the UK should stay in a cooperative union with its European neighbours.


A Holiday in Germany — Don’t Mention the War.

7 Oct

I’ve just had a holiday in Germany. I visited Bavaria. This followed up a city break in Berlin about 10 years ago. Germany is regarded as a slightly unusual destination for a British tourist. Even though it is close at hand and is a beautiful, fascinating country, the majority of British tourists ignore it, preferring the delights of Spain, Greece, France and Portugal, as well as being lured across the Atlantic to the States. I believe many British people have a prejudiced view of Germany and thus avoid visiting it. It seems to me that a lot of this derives from the two World Wars in which Germany was our main enemy. These devastating conflicts dominated and shaped the 20th century such that it will take a long time for the Germans to live down their previous reputation as aggressive, war-mongers and authors of the horrific Holocaust. Many older people still carry unhappy memories of  all the suffering, death and devastation caused by  the German armed forces in the World Wars. Even as they begin to fade a little, such memories are constantly stirred up again by the numerous war commemorations that the British seem so fond of. As well as the annual Remembrance day every November, the UK has recently commemorated : 100 years since the start of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of D Day, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and, in 2015, the 70th Anniversaries of VE and VJ days that marked the end of the Second World War in Europe and in Japan.  Films and TV programmes also often feature the war and stir-up its memories in the public consciousness. The enduring popularity of the BBC comedies “Dad’s Army” and “Allo Allo” are just 2 mild examples of this persistent trend even though they deal mainly in crude caricatures and stereotypes. Currently we have More 4’s “Resistance” a British/Belgian/French drama about the struggle against  German occupation in the 1940’s.

So the Second World War, in particular, continues to be alive and well on our screens as if it only happened yesterday. “Resistance” follows in the footsteps of countless other programmes over the years such as: “Colditz”, “Hogan’s Heroes”, “Secret Army”,and “Land Girls”, not to mention endless repeat showings of films such as “The Great Escape”, “The Guns of Navarone”, “The Dam Busters” and “Where Eagles Dare” The Nazis are the evil enemies in all these dramas, even in such family favourites as “The Sound of Music”, set in German- occupied Austria. I think that many people still mix up “Nazi” and “German”, even after all these years. So the image of a German in some people’s minds I suspect, is of a goose-stepping, sadistic monster, rather than of a normal person, just like you or me. I wonder if this is a significant reason why more British people don’t consider Germany as a viable holiday destination. Recently an acquaintance expressed nervousness because his relatives had persuaded him to go on a city break to Berlin. I asked him why he was reluctant to go and he replied:”Well, it’s Germany isn’t it?” Just for the record, he told me later that he had had a great time. I even fell into this mind-set myself on a recent trip to Vienna. A waitress in a café came up behind me and suddenly called out “auchtung!” as she struggled past with a tray full of pots. Just for a moment, a shiver slid down my spine as I remembered the German soldiers in my childhood comic, ” The Victor”, shouting the same command  before spraying someone with their machine-guns.

The British seem stuck in a rut in regarding the Germans as our “natural” enemies. The tabloids are quick to label them as “Krauts” or “Huns” whenever England plays them at football. They like to point out the German team’s mechanical efficiency and organisation rather than its skill or flair. This “put-down” has persisted even though the Germans usually beat us in the important matches. The recent Greek debt  crisis generated a lot of anti-German posts on social media, portraying Angela Merkel and the German government as cruel, unfeeling pay-masters 9 a bit like the Nazis perhaps?), forcing the poor Greeks into further austerity, poverty and misery. I think the real reasons for the Greek’s desperate situation  are a lot more complex than simply blaming the Germans. Because of the terrible atrocities they committed in the first half of the 20th century, it will take a long time for such anti-German sentiments to die down and be supplanted by more positive feelings. For many British people, the Germans will always be associated with Hitler and the Nazis. I often think of a  memorable scene from the 1970s TV comedy “Fawlty Towers”. Faced with complaining German guests, the hilariously incompetent hotel proprietor, Basil Fawlty, gets prickly and argumentative. When the Germans politely point out that it was he who started the argument, Fawlty retorts: ” No,you started it! You invaded Poland!” He then proceeds to march around the hotel dining room in goose-step style!

Another apparent negative point about German from a touristic point of view is that much of it lies in the north of Europe, where the climate tends to be cooler and less reliable. In fact, in that respect, it’s very much like the UK. Maybe British people just don’t fancy holidaying in a country that reminds them of their own! High street holiday brochures tend to concentrate on: sun-kissed beaches, bright, blue skies and sparkling seas. This goes a long way to explain the massive popularity of the Mediterranean destinations listed above. Germany spreads into central Europe, but its beaches are exclusively in the north. Here the skies can often be cloudy and grey, while the seas are cool, if not downright cold!. This image persists even though the German coast, like Britain’s, can enjoy many hours of summer sunshine. Naturism wouldn’t be so popular amongst the Germans if their resorts were always freezing cold. Even so, the North Sea ( formerly known as the German Ocean) and the Baltic, rarely, if ever conjure up the sunny, exotic images associated with the south.

Jonathan Meades, in his fascinating television documentary “Magnetic North”, persuasively points out that northern European countries have for a long time failed to have the glossy allure of their southern counterparts. He suggests that the vast majority of us have been seduced by the attractions of the south. Wine seems more carefree and celebratory than beer, which often is more associated with drowning one’s sorrows or obliterating one’s worries. Gently swaying palm trees seem more exotic and romantic than the stolid ranks of oaks or beeches in dark, northern forests. Blue skies of course are nearly always preferable to grey. Even the architecture of the south, the graceful, classical columns of Ancient Greece or Rome, are usually preferred to the gloomy Gothic style that originated in the north. The wealthy young aristocrats of yesteryear, set off on their “Grand Tours” to Italy, Greece and the Ottoman Empire of the Balkans and Turkey, rather than to Germany, Poland, the Low Countries or Scandinavia. As I look out of my window today, at the leaden, sodden skies of northern England ( in October), I can fully understand this preference for the sunny south.

For students of History though, it seems very strange that the British and the German peoples don’t have a much closer affinity because the ties between the two countries have been quite intimate over the centuries. The original “English”, as opposed to the Britons who were conquered by the Romans, were the Anglo- Saxons. They invaded British shores from the 6th century AD onwards and gradually took it over. The Saxons came from Saxony in Germany and the Angles came from what we now call Denmark, which is next door to Germany and well within German sphere of influence. Thus one can argue that the original ” English” were in fact Germans. Later on in the 17th century, England had a Dutch King, William III, and Dutch is technically a form of German. Then in the 18th century, Great Britain had a string of German Kings, the Georgians, who spoke limited English and preferred their native German. They were the Electors of Hanover ( also known as Brunswick-Luneburg.) and spent much of their reigns in Germany rather than England. When the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, died without a direct heir in 1714, the next 50 people in line for the throne were all Roman Catholics who were banned by law from succeeding. The 51st person in line, and the first protestant, was Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover, in the loose mosaic of German states known as the Holy Roman Empire. He became King George I. The Hanovarians  ( 4 Georges and a William) ruled until Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837. She promptly went and married the German Prince Albert. It seemed a very appropriate choice at the time as the Germans had been our close allies in the wars against the Revolutionary and Napoleonic French.  The Duke of Wellington usually garners most of the credit for the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. However it was the late, decisive intervention of General Blucher’s Prussians ( i.e. Germans) that turned the tide in the Allies’ favour. Prince Albert had a great influence over British life, including introducing Christmas traditions such as decorated Christmas trees. Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal Victoria, followed in her mother’s footsteps and married a German prince. At that point, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the British Royal Family’s surname was the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha). The German Kaiser in first World War, Wilhelm II, was actually the first cousin of the British King, George V. The war must have been a great embarrassment for the British Royal family as all other people with German sounding names were being rounded up and interned, because they might be potential fifth-columnists. Finally, in 1917, the Royal family officially adopted the name of Windsor, so they could hide their German ancestry. The only connection they had with the very English sounding “Windsor” was that it was the name of one of their castles.

I could go on and on about  the Anglo-German connections that have brought the 2 nations close together. What about all those classical musicians and composers that have had enduring popularity in Britain? — Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Hadyn, Mendelssohn, Bach and Wagner — all Germans or German speaking Austrians. I could do similar lists from the worlds of : literature, drama, art and philosophy. It was in Germany that Martin Luther launched the Protestant revolution which eventually resulted in Great Britain becoming an officially Protestant country. Yet all these important and numerous connections between Britain and Germany have been clouded by the 2 devastating World Wars of last century and Germany’s culpability in both ( although the first world conflict can be blamed on a whole host of countries including Britain.) Everyone loves a scapegoat — someone to blame. Germany has fulfilled that role for many years. They must have been relieved when the Soviet Union, then Russia largely took over that role. Now the Germans are officially our friendly allies. We are in NATO together. We are both long term members of the EU. We work and trade together in many ways. We have German players in the Premier League and Liverpool Football Club have just appointed a German manager, Jurgen Klopp. Yet I fear that anti- German prejudices linger on. I wonder how many people have been recently rubbing their hands in glee at the recent troubles of Volkswagon?

So what was it like entering the lair of the “enemy” — sorry, “friend”? Well the best word I can use to describe Germany and the Germans is “civilised”. At my very first meal in Berlin, when  I was struggling with the menu, the German gentleman on the adjoining table leaned over and said, in perfect, English ” If you need me to translate anything, I would be delighted to help.” Berlin itself was exciting with stunning modern architecture, great museums and art galleries and a whole host of fascinating history. I know it’s a cliché, but everyone was really friendly and helpful. This autumn’s trip to Munich and southern Bavaria was equally interesting and enjoyable. This time we saw: gorgeous mountain scenery, beautiful lakes, the fantasy castles of King Ludwig II ( made famous by Disney), medieval buildings decorated with illusionist paintings from the 16th century, spectacular Baroque and Rococo churches and palaces and so on. We even found vegetarian sections on most restaurant menus, a bit of a surprise in a big meat eating country. All the trains and buses ran on time. We never saw a speck of litter until we arrived back at London Stansted airport. Welcome back to England! Yes Germany was very “civilised”, picturesque, interesting and enjoyable. And, even though it was September and no- where near to the Med, the sun shone nearly every day. As in Berlin, everyone we met in Bavaria was helpful, friendly and spoke pretty decent English. It was a very enjoyable holiday and I’m glad I ignored the anti-German prejudice which unfortunately still lingers in Britain. I plan to return next year to visit the World Heritage listed Hanseatic city of Lubeck near Hamburg. It should be really good so long as I don’t mention that long ago war. But then again, why should I?

My Dad is 90! ( Story of an Ordinary man in the 20th/21st centuries.)

25 Nov

Last weekend, my father, Maurice Reuben B—-, hit the milestone of his 90th birthday. Family members from far and near gathered at a hotel on the edge of Chatsworth Park, in the Derbyshire Peak District to celebrate this achievement over a grand “afternoon tea.” With all his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren arranged around the table before him, plus their respective partners, his youngest son, my brother Gr—-, delivered a short tribute to Maurice , recounting all he had done in his 9 decades. Unfortunately I don’t think dad registered much of it as he was totally engrossed in munching his egg and cress sandwich!
It is amazing to think that my dad was born only 5 years after the end of the First World War. He was the youngest of 6 children born to George Arthur and Ada B—- in Barrow Hill near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. He had 2 brothers and 3 sisters. I think Maurice was very close to his father and still speaks of him fondly. George Arthur worked down the pit and then later in the great iron and steel works that dominated the town. He also had a big garden, an allotment and like many people in those days, a small holding on which he kept pigs and chickens. When he was not at school, Maurice helped his dad with the animals. In fact, at school he was given the unflattering nickname of “Piggy B—-.” One day my granddad went off to the livestock auction. Grandma gave him strict instructions not to spend any more of their limited income on yet another “porker.”. He did as he was told, but instead came back with a pony which he said he had saved from the “gypsies”.
Maurice helped to care for all these animals and birds and was particularly attached to the pony. He and his father used to harness it up to a little cart and go out selling firewood around the streets. But pigs were their speciality. Farmers came from all over the area if they had sick pigs because George Arthur, helped by Maurice, had the knack of diagnosing them, treating them and making them better. A whole selection of mysterious potions was stored in the outhouse alongside the sacks of pig and chicken feed. I recently talked to someone whose grandma was a neighbour of theirs. She remembers George Arthur and Maurice walking round with a wooden yoke on their shoulders. It was specially shaped to go round their necks. Dangling on the end of chains were 2 pails. I asked my dad what was in the buckets, and he replied “pig swill.” The lady I spoke to also remembers the father and son next door slaughtering pigs out in the street and the sticky blood trickling down the public drain. It’s almost unbelievable to me that my own father was involved in such medieval scenes! No wonder he always opts for gammon, bacon, sausages, ham or pork when he is perusing the menu at a restaurant or café. He is still “Piggy B—-” at heart. His upbringing has determined his diet. That same upbringing has also determined my life-long diet. I was so shocked and repelled by the whole thing that I became a vegetarian, something my dad has never understood.
I think of Maurice walking around with that wooden yoke across his shoulders and then think of my own children engrossed in their laptops and smartphones. What a gulf has appeared in just 2 generations! When I mention computers to my parents, their eyes immediately glaze over and I can tell that my words are not registering. Computers are alien contraptions to them like something out of Doctor Who. They will never own them and never understand them. The internet is something beyond their imagination. Similarly I know that Maurice’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will probably never be faced with the task of skinning a pig or disembowelling a chicken. Even for me it’s an impossibility to imagine living that sort of life. My dad can just about remember it, his distant childhood in another world, but for the rest of us, that lifestyle is lost forever in the mists of time.
Dad lived his childhood in the “Roaring Twenties” but I don’t think he met any flappers or danced the Charleston. He lived through the 1926 General Strike and the 1929 Wall Street Crash without being aware of them as he was a child. However the failure, in 1926, of the miner’s campaign to get better conditions and a living wage did impinge on the family as it was this that persuaded George Arthur to leave the mines as he was unwilling to accept the insultingly lower pay deal that was on offer. That was when he entered the steelworks. My dad does have vague recollections of the poverty of those days and tells the story of his father taking a wheel barrow and a pick axe to the spoil heaps near the mine in order to scavenge for pieces of coal for the fire. ( this was well before the days of central heating.) Apparently, one day he found a very big man on his patch who told him to get lost. Granddad pretended to retreat but then rushed at the intruder with his pick-axe handle and gave him such a hefty whack that he ran away and never returned!
My father left school when he was only 13. He received only a very basic education. He has never been a very good writer or speller but has always been keen on reading, voraciously devouring anything in print that comes within his range. He has always been very curious about the world around him, and never misses the news. Thrown on to the depleted job market at the height of the Great Depression, dad managed to get employment by delivering shoe repairs for the local Coop on his bike. One day he delivered some shoes to an uncle who he had never seen before because of a quarrel over a will between George Arthur and his brother. It was a bit of a shock for Maurice to see his long estranged relative. After the delivery job, dad got work in a light bulb factory. It was either too cold or, if he was near to the glass furnace, too hot. He told me that he worked there for 13 months and caught 13 colds! Then, on the eve of the Second World War, dad landed his dream job on the railways. It was prized employment because it was a job for life with a proper career structure. Maurice started by cleaning the dirty, oily locomotives in the shed at Barrow Hill. He then became a fireman or stoker for many years. This was the tough, back-breaking job of feeding the furnace of the steam locomotive. He came home exhausted and looking as black as a coalman. Dad worked as a railway fireman for many years, at least 12. Then he got promoted to driver status. Later on he retrained so he could drive the diesel locomotives that took over from the steamers.
Maurice drove coal trains linking the pits with the power stations in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. He worked unsociable hours in a constant rotation of shifts. The worst shifts were nights and early mornings. They played havoc with his sleep patterns and may explain his quick temper with my sister, G—–, and I when our playing and squabbling disturbed the peace of the house. In the war, Maurice fancied going into the navy but his work on the railways was deemed an essential service for the war effort. So he fought Hitler on the Home Front. He and his mate had to cover the hatch into the fire with a tarpaulin so its glow did not give their position away to the German bombers droning in the sky above. One night, he told me, his coal train was diverted on to a siding as a fast passenger train was due on the mainline. As they waited in the pitch black the mainline ahead of them was suddenly lit up by a line of vividly exploding German incendiary bombs. It was a close call!
Well dad ( and the rest of the country) saw off Hitler and he celebrated by meeting my mum, Jessie, on a blind date and getting engaged. They married a couple of days after Jessie’s 21st birthday in July, 1947. In those days, one wasn’t deemed to be an adult until one hit 21. It was a traditional white wedding in a Methodist Church in Chesterfield. That was very appropriate, for dad was immediately sucked into the life of staunch Methodism that dominated my mum’s family. Maurice stopped swearing and drinking ( as I’m sure he did as a lad) and took the “pledge”. He joined the church choir led by his father-in-law ( my maternal Granddad), attended the service every Sunday, became a Sunday School teacher and later, he even became a lay-preacher.
By now the Welfare State and the National Health Service had been introduced by Atlee’s Labour government, just in time to benefit dad and his family. I arrived in 1949 and Gl—-, a couple of years later. Times were tough though as strict rationing was still in force and it was the age of austerity. In the 1950s Maurice worked hard to keep the family afloat. In that decade it was a matter of honour that a man should be able to support his family. As soon as she married, my mother gave up her job in a grocery shop. It was dad’s duty to bring in the wage. He got a weekly pay-packet, a small wad of cash in a see-through envelope, and he handed it straight over to his wife, every Friday. She was in charge of the family budget. She would give a bit back to her husband to serve as his spending money. This was the age of “make do and mend” and of “looking after the pennies so the pounds will look after themselves.” The age of austerity lasted well into the 1950s. I think my dad did really well in supporting his family in such difficult times. As well as working, he also, like his father, developed a large produce garden. I remember it being full of vegetables and avenues of fruit trees. He was very handy around the house, making and mending things himself rather than calling in tradesmen. When I was young, he made me a toy garage and bought an old bike for me and did it up.
At first my mum and dad lived with mum’s parents in their 2 bedroomed terrace house. It must have been a squash and thus quite stressful. It was not the best of circumstances to begin married life in especially after I arrived. By the time my sister joined the family we were living in our own place which must have been a matter of great pride to my father. It was a rented railway house with just cold water, no bathroom and an outside toilet, just like most ordinary houses in the 50’s. It was in an “idyllic” location next to a disused canal, a railway and the large iron, steel and chemical works. Sometimes a bad egg smell swept over our estate. Then in 1959 came a big improvement in our quality of life. Maurice and Jessie were finally allocated a council house after being on the waiting list for 12 years. My dad must have been so proud when we moved into a property that had hot and cold running water, an indoor toilet and, wait for it …. a bathroom! The tin bath which Maurice and Jessie had to fill up every Sunday night ( me at one end and my sister at the other) was now consigned to history. We were still renting but it was a big step up in the world. By the end of the 50’s Britain was experiencing a significant increase in the standard of living for many people. Even Maurice with his moderate income, could afford to buy a washing machine, an early vacuum cleaner, and most importantly a telly! It was only a 12 inch black and white but it was an exciting development for us. Before, we had spent our evenings doing jigsaws and making “proggy” mats with the wireless ( radio) on in the background. By the end of the 50’s we even had the new commercial channel: ITV. So Maurice in his 40’s was at the head of a mostly happy and prospering little family. Every year we had a seaside holiday using his free rail passes and we always had a magical Christmas with presents, lights and tree, as well as the carol service at chapel.
By the early 1960’s my dad had stopped walking to work and had acquired a motor scooter. Then in the mid 60’s his family was completed by the late arrival of my younger brother Gr—-. It was a bit of a surprise but a very pleasant one. Unfortunately this happy event was quickly followed by a very unfortunate one. Maurice and Jessie were travelling on the Lambretta to the local shops when a car sped out of a side street and smashed right into them. They broke 3 legs between them. Maurice was worse off as he broke 2 and one was a bad break. He was in hospital for many weeks. It was a traumatic event for the family but we all closed ranks and got through it. It was stressful as my little brother was only a few months old at the time. Social services had to step in to help. The only good thing to come out of all this was the compensation which my dad used to buy his first car. It was a blue 1965 Ford Cortina. It felt as if the family had really come up in the world and I think my dad must have felt very proud as he parked it outside the house.
Maurice’s next big challenge was dealing with my teenage rebellion. As the 60’s progressed and I got deep into adolescence, I began to question and then reject much of my parent’s lifestyle, opinions and values. This was now the “swinging 60’s” but my mum and dad stayed stuck in a world of popular classics, light opera and brass bands. I now confronted and affronted them with loud pop and rock music. Used to taking their children to Sunday worship every week, they were now disappointed to find that their offspring no longer wanted to go.( my sister was with me on this one.) Used to carving the Sunday roast, meat he had proudly put on the table to feed his family, my father was now faced with a son who had become a vegetarian. Hair, clothes, choice of friends and girls were other areas of conflict. My dad at first tried to deal with my rebellion by being the stern Victorian patriarch.( as his father had probably been before him.) He ordered mum to keep giving me the same piece of meat that I had refused to eat and not give me any more food in the meantime. His strong stance was doomed to failure as it made me even more determined and my mum fed me as soon as he went to work, somewhat undermining his position. There were many altercations. Dad still had a bad temper at times and was not against slapping us to press home his point. In this he was nothing unusual as corporal punishment was still regarded as acceptable in homes and schools in the 1960’s. One day when I was about 15, dad lost his temper with my sister and advanced towards her with his hand raised. I quickly stood between them and told him to back off. He backed away defeated. I think it was a turning point in our relationship. Maurice was now losing total control over his children.
To be fair, the 1960’s must have been very tough for my dad. Both his parents died in their early 70s within a few months of each other. His parents in law, my maternal grandparents, who he was very close to, also passed away in that decade. He was working full time on a job with anti-social hours and did as much overtime as he could. He also worked as a voluntary caretaker at the Methodist chapel. Maurice now had a young child to care for and simultaneously had to deal with a simmering teenage rebellion from his eldest son. Of course he also broke his legs and, in the same decade he suffered from a slipped disc and had a lot of back pain!
The 1970’s brought about an improvement in his lot to a certain extent. My sister and I had both disappeared to college in Manchester so home life must have been a lot quieter with just my young brother Gr—- left in the nest. At the start of that decade, Maurice and Jessie also reached a very significant landmark. They bought their own house, a 3 bedroomed bungalow on a new estate. It had been a long-term dream. Again I imagine how proud my dad must have been as he took possession of the keys to his own place. Now he could see the fruits of his labour in bricks and mortar. At almost exactly the same time as Neil Armstrong was becoming the first man to step on to the moon, my dad was stepping into his very own house
Maurice was now in his later forties and early fifties. Things calmed down between us such that he came to my wedding in 1970 and was an affectionate and enthusiastic grandfather when the next generation arrived. He was very supportive and we managed to develop a more civilised and less volatile relationship. Problems still arrived in Maurice’s life though. My sister’s marriage broke up in unpleasant and upsetting circumstances. Then my parents’ dream home developed alarming cracks because of mining subsidence. They had to move out into temporary accommodation and eventually, at the start of the 80’s, they bought a new bungalow down the road using the compensation money from the National Coal Board. They took a chance though as the new place was still in a subsidence area. Luckily it has now passed the test of time as mum and dad are still living in it.
In the 1980’s Maurice was nearing the end of his long career on the railways. He went all the way through to 65 and finally retired in November, 1988. He could have gone earlier as his bosses were willing to give him an early retirement package as they were looking to prune the workforce at the shed. However these plans were constantly blocked by the rail drivers’ union ASLEF. Dad had become bitterly anti-union and had had numerous clashes with ASLEF’s local officials. He had to be in the union as it was a closed shop, something my dad vehemently disagreed with as it denied him his freedom of choice. I tend to agree with him on this. He had become a regular reader of the Daily Mail, since the demise of the News Chronicle, and had swallowed many of its more right wing views. I remember having an argument with him about comprehensive schools which he was against despite me having failed the 11 plus. In 1984 during the big Miner’s Strike my dad made himself very unpopular by driving coal trains from Nottinghamshire where the miners were working on and betraying their fellow workers in the rest of the country. While dad has never voted Tory ( it was not in his working class DNA), in this case he was assisting Mrs Thatcher’s smashing of the miners by being a strike breaker. He did this for personal reasons I think because he hated the unions. They got their revenge on him by blocking his early retirement and making him slog on to the bitter end. The ASLEF officials also used their influence with the managers to make sure he was messed around as much as possible.( according to my dad’s account that is.) His shifts were constantly changed at short notice so that he didn’t know whether he was coming or coming. Retirement finally came as a huge blessing. Maurice was worn out. His 65th birthday was on a Monday and his manager kindly told him to empty his locker on the previous Friday, so he was given one day’s pay for free.
I think retirement was a big relief to Maurice. He calmed down a lot and had a more relaxed attitude to life. His temper disappeared. Although my relationship with him had improved a bit he was still much closer to my sister. Everytime I spoke to him ( and mum) they were full of stories about what Gl—- and her new husband Andy, had been doing. They owned a hotel in Skegness and my dad helped Andy modernise the place, converting the bedrooms to en-suite accommodation. Andy,unlike my brother and I, was a very handy person. He had lots of practical skills. I think dad saw Andy as the son he never had. He could relate to him a lot better than his two “namby pamby”, middle-class, vegetarian sons. ( Graham too had given up on eating animals.) Dad was still quietly supportive of me though and helped move a van load of furniture into my post- divorce flat, coming up from Derbyshire to Tyneside to do so.
And so life went on. Maurice’s new routines were nearly all centred around the chapel. He was caretaker, chief steward, a Sunday School teacher and member of the choir. When my mum hit health and mobility problems in her 70’s Dad became her official carer, even though he was 3 years her senior. He had been as fit as a fiddle for most of his life. I made more regular visits but he never really talked to me about anything personal. He was more comfortable with chit chat and kept his emotions to himself. When he did talk, he often talked at you, relating endless stories about how he, personally, solved all the problems of the railways. He has never been a very good listener or conversationalist. My parents survived another difficult period when my brother had to come back and live at home with them after his job fell through. Neither party liked this arrangement I feel and they constantly rubbed each other up the wrong way. In the 90’s mum became very ill and dad thought she was possibly going to die. He went to pieces when she was in hospital. They had had a very long, loving marriage and had grown dependent on each other. Luckily mum pulled through and they plodded on with their quiet life in Chesterfield. Mum and dad have never moved out of the town. They now live just a couple of miles from where they were born. They have also never travelled overseas except to the Isle of Wight. They have been content to have their annual holiday at a traditional English seaside resort. To me it is if they were still living in the 1950’s. Foreign package holidays and budget airlines have never figured on their restricted radar.
In his 80’s Maurice gradually got frailer. He has become more and more forgetful. ( haven’t we all?) In the second half of his 80’s his mobility started to decline. He now shuffles slowly with the aid of a stick. He has experienced various health problems mostly controlled by his daily tablets. He has warned me about getting old and told me that he doesn’t recommend it! He has developed a tremor such that his hands shake uncontrollably when he is trying to eat or drink. Drinking a hot cup of tea has become a perilous occupation! Despite all this he still manages to give his beloved wife, breakfast in bed every morning. When he got to 83 he told me that he had now lived longer than every other member of his large family. Now he has made it to 90!
As he ate his sandwiches and cakes and the whole family sang happy birthday to him he looked very pleased with himself but seemed to be only vaguely aware of what was happening. I don’t think he looks back over his long life very much, if at all. He mainly lives in the present, going from day to day. He tells me he wants to get to 102 because one of the ladies at chapel made it that grand old age. I know he gets very tired and is fed up with health and mobility problems. He still lives mostly in his own world and never reveals his private thoughts or emotions. I know if I phoned him up today and told him that I loved him his answer would almost certainly be : ” Here’s your mum.”

Estonian Snapshots.

24 Sep

My travel buddy, Eric, and I went to Estonia a few years ago. It’s the most northernly of the Baltic states and only a stone’s throw from Russia.
Snapshot 1 — Father Christmas at the end of the Line.
One day in Tallin, Eric suggested riding to the end of the tram line just to see what was there. So we left Tourist-Tallin, heading north-west, right to the tip of a bitterly cold, bleak peninsula. ( We visited in March.) We trundled through drab suburbs of crumbling, concrete apartment blocks largely inhabited by poorer Russians, left stranded by the fall of the Soviet Empire.
At the end of the line we got out and shivered as we looked out on to the grey, choppy Baltic and a rubbish strewn shoreline, criss-crossed by rusty rail tracks. it was a desolate scene. Then we spotted the green, copper roof of a little wooden church. It was clearly Russian Orthodox.
We tentatively knocked on the door, mostly expecting it to be locked. But to our surprise, we were welcomed in by two babushkas in dark coats and headscarves. It was warm and quiet inside. The gloom was illuminated by flickering candles. We sat in a hushed silence, looking at the shining icons, as the old Russian ladies quietly carried on with their cleaning and tidying. We enjoyed the spiritual ambience of the place.
When Eric and I got up to leave, the two ladies tried to communicate with us in fragments of broken English. They then pressed little icons of St Nicholas into our palms. We were in a church dedicated to Father Christmas!
It was one of those magical moments when we were able to glimpse behind the tourist curtain and forget about ticking off sights. We felt the warmth of a connection with real people, momentarily breaking down the barriers of distance, culture and language that normally separated us.

Snapshot 2 — The Nazis were the Good Guys!
The most interesting museum we visited in Estonia was Tallin’s newest — The Museum of the Occupations and the Fight for Freedom. The “occupations” in question were those of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Obviously, many Russians would feel affronted at being compared with the infamous nazis. However, from an Estonian point of view, the Soviet conquerers were equally cruel and oppressive, if not more so, and the Soviet occupation went on for much longer, stretching across five long decades. Photos, artefacts and videos tell the tragic story of Estonia’s suffering during much of the 20th century. On the TV screens we watched the terrible tale of conquest and occupations by 2 of the last century’s cruellest regimes. It literally was a mind-bending experience, as it changed my perception of 20th century World Affairs.
Estonia was re-conquered by the Soviet Union in 1940, in a little known consequence of the cynical Nazi- Soviet pact when Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up eastern Europe between them. The Estonians then suffered mass deportations. Tens of thousands were sent to work and die in labour camps in the frozen wastes of northern Russia. Then there were the disappearances of thousands of people in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Even women and children were sent to the Gulags. Given this horrendous background, it is not surprising that the Germans were initially welcomed as liberators, when they broke their pact with Stalin and drove the Soviets out of the Baltic states as well as Russian Poland. Many Estonians joined the Wehrmacht to fight the common enemy.
Some museum visiters found this revelation very shocking. They could not accept that the nazi Germans could be perceived as the “good guys”. ” Have the Estonians never heard of the Holocaust?” wrote one outraged Finnish visiter. This person clearly found it difficult to empathise with the Estonian position in 1940. Bringing the Holocaust into the frame, a truly terrible event, that took place mainly in the mid-1940’s and in countries outside Estonia, seems to be missing the point. In fact, Estonia did not have many Jews living within its borders and so never featured in Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The nearest significant concentration of Jews was in Lithuania, two countries to the south.
This Finnish citizen additionally seems to have forgotten that Finland too fought alongside the Germans against the Soviets, because they also had been conquered by Stalin’s armies. The Finns saw an alliance with the Nazis as their best chance for freedom. It is one of those cases where people want to make history “black and white”, but where it stubbornly persists in remaining “grey”.
The Nazi Germans freed Estonia from Russian domination and at first allowed it some degree of local automony. The Germans initially ruled with a lighter touch and so were welcomed as liberators. It was only later, with the shooting of Communist collaborators ( 75,000 of them!), and the forced conscription into the German army , that life under the nazis became more onerous. What an invidious choice the Estonians had to make in the early 1940’s — Hitler or Stalin?
From an early 21st century, British point of view, it seems shocking that Estonia welcomed the nazis and fought alongside them. However, once one learns of the oppressive background of Soviet rule, not to mention the harsh Czarist rule of the 19th century, then it is not so surprising afterall and is even understandable. It goes against the grain to think of the nazis as the good guys, but in this far-away and forgotten corner of Europe, and for a short period of time, they actually were! This for some, may be an uncomfortable realisation to make.

Snapshot 3 — A Glimpse into the 19th century.
Eric and I took the long distance bus to Tartu, Estonia’s second city. We had hoped to visit the best Ethnographical museum in the country but unfortunately visited on the only day of the year when it was closed — Good Friday! The whole place was like a ghost town with only a couple of cafes remaining open.
We wandered the streets, admiring tha traditional wooden architecture and a very tall brick, Lutheran church. Late in the afternoon we were walking down a quiet backstreet flanked by old wooden dwellings.A small dog came out of a gate and started barking furiously at us, baring its yellow teeth. But we walked on regardless. ( it was a very small dog!) As we approached it lost its nerve and disappeared back through the gate again.
As we passed, we naturally looked in. What met our eyes was like a glimpse back into the 19th century! An old, Orthodox priest in long black robes and with a long, black Rasputin-style beard, was standing on the open porch of his wooden house. Beside him stood his wife in a dark dress down to her ankles. The house was old and rambling. It faced on to a yard/garden full of mud, junk and yapping, mangy dogs. It was a far cry from the modern Scandinavian feel of much of Tallin. This was a throw back to the days of the pre-Revolutionay Empire of Czarist Russia.
We only glanced in briefly, but this fleeting experience was like travelling back into another era.