Lest We Forget… my Dad’s first AND ONLY visit to London – aged 86!

I thought I’d share this from November 2009 when British and Allied troops were in Afghanistan. Dad lived another 7 years after this. But it remains the only time he ever visited London. And one of very few times he talked about his war-time experience.

My Dad, above, on the Thames embankment for the first time, aged 86. Note cap in hand.

It’s been an unusually domestic week for me. And with remembrance day, British troops in Afghanistan and the Sun newspaper giving Gordon Brown a bad time over his handwriting, one that has given me pause for thought too.

It was a big week on the domestic front because my Dad, at 86, had never been to London before. He apparently drove near it in the 1940’s, but that was in the back of an army truck. So he and my lovely sister came down for a few days. I don’t think I ever spend enough time with my family. Is it just me or do we all feel like that? I am so focused on trying to create art and avoid arts oft nearby regular bedfellow – grinding poverty! So it was nice when they came down, and as ever Bex was the perfect hostess, fussing over every detail.

Dad actually passed near London in the 1940’s to jump on a plane for Operation Market Garden at Arnhem. Dad was a paratrooper, a ‘Red Devil’ and was part of the cock up that marked a bridge too far. He was wounded and spent a long time as a P.O.W. However, it’s just as well he was captured when he was. I checked his company details on the ‘tinterweb and the very day of the morning of his capture most of his comrades were wiped out by a machine gun nest. Incredible, but true.

So in London, we did the usual thing, showing Dad and Sis around darkest Chiswick and taking them to our favourite haunts. I’d met them both at Euston Mainline station and we took the Northern and District Underground Lines to get home. Now Dad is sharp and full of humour and although his hearing isn’t too good (and he stubbornly refuses to wear his hearing aid) and he’s not as lithe as he used to be, he’s nobodies fool. So it was strange to see how strange the everyday of London was to him. He was fascinated by the electronic signs inside the tube carriages. He thought they were a great idea and seemed transfixed by them all the way back to Stamford Brook. He couldn’t understand the need for all the different tube lines until I explained the distances involved and that the map was a condensed representation of the network.

“And what if you’re colour blind with all those colours on that tube map?” he commented. He was also shocked by how violently the turnstile doors slapped open and shut. I think he may have a point there.

But what really made me think was us walking from Westminster to Embankment pier past the RAF war memorial. I was slightly ahead of Dad looking for my camera. When I looked back he was looking up at the memorial and had his cap in his hand.

“You all right Dad?” I asked.

“Just thought I’d say hello to the boys,” he said and nodded at the memorial. “They looked after us as much as they could.” I’d never heard Dad talk like that.

I took the pic, then he doffed his cap to the memorial, put it on his head and off we went.

I asked him about it later. Dad was born into extreme poverty, the youngest of eleven kids. His mom, my Grandmother, died when Dad was seven. My Grandfather, Paddy, was an Irish labourer from Co Mayo in the west of Ireland. He was a big drinker (so THAT’S where I get it from… not my fault then!) who would often use his belt on the kids when he’d had a bit too much, which was apparently most nights. I have some sympathy.  Not with beating the kids, of course, but the pressures on him must have been immense. There were 12 of them, pre welfare-state in the 1930’s depression, in two rooms in an up and down house in Leeds and often they went hungry too. When Paddy sobered up later in life he would often tell Dad the army was a good way out. Three square meals a day was a lot better than the everyday life they enjoyed. So aged 16 Dad and a mate from Leeds lied about their ages and signed up. Not the best of times to join the army. As Paddy said, 

“Join the army, yes, but not when there’s a bloody war on!”

So Dad was grateful to the airman who took care to give them a safe landing at Arnhem. But it transpired later that there were other people looking out for him too. Dad’s C.O. never acknowledged Dad’s age. But the day they got captured, the day Dad’s platoon was massacred, the C.O. got his company up in the early morning, and moved off quietly, leaving my wounded Dad and his young chum asleep. When they woke up, the older guys had gone. The German officer who first captured them looked set to turn violent until he saw their age. In perfect English he said to Dad, “You are too young to die in this war.”

I attended a wedding in Scotland a few years ago. Behind the bar was a young man… maybe 19 years old. He was wearing a Parachute Regiment Tie. I asked him about it and he said he was in the Territorial Army. I happened to mention that my Dad was in 2 Para and dropped at Nijmegen Bridge in 1944. His reaction took me completely by surprise. He shook my hand. “Woah! Your Dad! What heroes those guys were.” And in spite of protestations, I was unable to pay for a drink all night!

Dad’s reaction to the memorial and the young guy in Scotland got me to thinking about the current engagements. The loss of life is hugely regrettable in Afganastan at the moment and indeed many of my cousins in Leeds were in the forces,. But was WW2 the last TRULY justifiable war? Can the 9/11 tragedy be compared to the invasion of Poland by Hitler? Is it right the Sun newspaper seems to be making an attempt to discredit the P.M. by using and directing the anger of a grieving mother?  Isn’t that just a bit too much 21st century?

Something don’t smell right, kids. I feel uncomfortable. I suppose it’s always us, the great unwashed, the working class who get stuffed by other peoples principles; it’s always us that ends up galloping into the cannons or marching into the hail of shot. But is it right, nowadays? I dunno. This time last year, during a performance of Henry V – Lion of England, in Brighton I had actor Ed Morris place a poppy in his coat at the end of the show which caused a palpable gasp from the audience. (I won’t give too much away about that. I want you to see the show!) But what do you think? 

I’m just very grateful to Dad’s C.O. and that unnamed German officer in Holland. Or I almost certainly wouldn’t be here to ask these questions.

2 Comments

  1. Jane Nelson says:

    Nick that was a great story and what a great experience for you, Paul would have loved hearing that story as I did. Say hi for me from accross the pond, love to you

    Like

    1. Ahh, thanks Jane. And big love to you all over the pond too! x

      Like

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