The griefs of parents: 1
Granny is sitting in Beloved son's house in Kew; today is mind grandchildren/cook dinner for son and daughter-in-law day - but now one child is at school and the other at nursery and she has their parents' much superior laptop to play on. Blue sky is being slowly covered in white clouds. Apple blossom out, birds singing, grass green. All the cliches. But nice. House very tidy. Not everything descends through generations. The only exception is the room Granny temporarily inhabits upstairs; clobber hauled out of bags and scattered... oh well, never mind. In two days she will bag it all up and return to her tiny flat, currently inhabited by tenants, who will move out for the duration.
Here is the post Granny drafted before she left her island. It's probably the last long one she'll do till the end of next month. But she will keep on thinking - and writing the odd note here.
To his sisters – eleven and thirteen years older - he was a plaything at first. That changed. Towards the end of the first world war the elder, the giddy silly one, considered unreliable by her parents, used to cycle over to nearby airfield - to visit the officers, it goes without saying, not the ordinary airmen – she wasn’t that giddy. Granny’s dad aged ten or so by then was sent on his bicycle as chaperone. It is hard to imagine which of them – sister or little brother – objected to this more. The more sensible younger sister he came to confide in, as he grew up. 'I could tell her about my girlfriends,' he said. 'My mother was too old.'
But neither of them were the kind of companions that nearer in age siblings would have been. He claimed never to have had a friend till he was seven or so and tutored for prep school jointly with the grandson of one of his parents’ friends. When they were not learning Latin, the two were given packed lunches, a little pocket money and despatched to amuse themselves in London, in whatever way the pocket money ran to; not much further than the bus probably. This continued during the holidays, even after he was sent to be brutalised at prep school by a sadist headmaster who liked pretty little boys – for reasons which Dad, an innocent all his life probably never fully understood; and then rather less traumatically to the public school of which he remained so devoted a supporter up to the summer that he died.
His trials at school were more public than the ones resulting from his family background. But not so public as the griefs which he suffered alongside everyone else as a result of one war and another. As he said to Granny, in his eighties, tears rolling down his cheeks. ‘I have some good German friends. But I can’t like the Germans. They killed my brothers in the first world war, my friends in the second.’ Though Granny herself, for obvious reasons, did not experience the first world war and knew the second only as an excuse for midnight junketings and trips to the country – leaving her almost disappointed when it ended - the effects of these griefs permeated her family life far more than she realised. In her late twenties she set a book during the First World War. Though she had to research the details, she did not have to research the atmosphere. The melancholy came welling up from the past, from the pages of all the books her father collected about the history of both wars, from the memory of the black skirts and chokers her grandmother wore and had done her father said ever since the loss of her eldest sons. It permeated the pages she was writing without any effort from her let alone thought. It took her a while realise where it came from.
A further public – yet more personal - grief for her father was that his one great ambition, to go into the army, was thwarted. His mother – a dear he said - would not hear of it, for obvious reasons and he could not, would not disobey that. Of course when the second war came he saw his chance. But alas his job in the House of Commons exempted him, and he was not allowed to gainsay that either. The closest he got to war was Dad’s Army, the Home Guard, on behalf of which he spent dutiful nights on one exercise or another. His nearest approach to a war wound was a mashed thumb, caught in the tailgate of a Home Guard truck – lorry Granny supposes she’d better call it; she remembers – or thinks she remembers - him coming home that morning, pouring blood. Much of the rest of the war he spent touring England looking for billets for Members of Parliament for when they moved the Mother of Parliaments to some safer place than London. (Granny doesn’t know when and if they did.)
Leaving aside the griefs, Granny’s dad’s view of these wars (as of being English – he could not imagine wanting to be anything else, as could not Granny in her youth) was rooted in Victorian mores. He inherited his elder brothers’ Henty books – with titles like ‘With Clive in India.’ Or ‘With Gordon at Khartoum.’ All of which featured some young man/boy keeping his upper lip stiff, his back straight – even if to the wall – his white man’s burden light as a feather – his honour untarnished – if dented by the bullets and spears of some revolting Native – and ended with his spears won, his manhood attained. So on and so forth. About just the kind of idiocy in fact which left Scott dying in a tent – and Oates taking a long time over his walk – while Amundsen who valued the advice and local know-how of ‘ignorant’ ‘natives’ got to the Pole and back safely in much less time. But who, not believing in heroic failure, wasn’t in the English sense ‘manly’.
‘Manly’ was definitely The Word. One Granny’s father believed in. In the light of which she remembers him marching upstairs once, her brother in one hand, cane in the other. Aged ten or so, her brother was to be caned for not ‘being manly’ or ‘keeping ‘a stiff upper lip’ – in other words for having made a fuss about a smallpox vaccination. Even aged seven, Granny thought this outrageous. She was to be seen following the procession upstairs, pounding on her father’s bottom, yelling, ‘you’re not to beat my brother, you’re not to beat him.’ Vainly. The saddest thing of all about this was that her father would have hated the business quite as much as her brother did, let alone her mother. But he believed in it as -his English - fatherly duty. Just as he believed it would have been his duty to fight in both world wars, had he been old enough during the one, or permitted to during the other.
Granny inherited the books, and devoured them all in her turn, looked in tender amazement at the notebooks in which her father as a boy had sketched out his own versions of similar exploits, along with drawings of soldiers and dragons. She fell for the myth of manliness too more or less – and in the less bellicose books she also inherited and read, from the same period, where there were actually sisters – women! – fell for the myth of ‘maidenliness’ they advocated, feeling herself fall well short. Quiet, obedient, thoughtful? With not a filthy thought in her head? Not her. And anyway she wasn’t sufficiently stupid. (‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever...’ was something clearly endorsed by the public school young men she was brought up to marry, who on meeting her at dances and learning she was at Oxford, fled at the first opportunity. Just as well for her that the last person on earth she wanted to marry was the product of an English public school. Having a father and brother from them was more than enough.)
The manliness and obedience bit, the Englishman right or wrong bit, came hard up against reality during the Suez crisis. Granny’s dad was fervently in favour of it. Granny beginning to think for herself by then, by no means so sure. The Daily Mirror – with the cartoon strips beloved of Granny’s mother- vanished from the house forever when it turned out to be as much against the idiot adventure as Granny’s father was for it. Her mother had to make do with the Daily Express, with Giles and the Gambols, thereafter.
Granny does not know if her dad changed his view of the Suez venture in later years; she’d learned not to discuss such things with him by then. Britain having lost its Empire did not get embroiled in ventures as corrupting, divisive and socially damaging as the Vietnam war - Suez was brief after all and did not leave millions of traumatised veterans. She knew he retained his belief in the superiority of being English – of his preference, even though quite eclectic in his tastes, for what he called ‘good English food.’ (School food, to you.) But she thinks the bellicosity – ‘might is right as long as it is English and Standing Up for St George and Empire’ - lost quite a lot of its force for him as the twentieth century ground to its bloody end.
When George Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq, Granny asked her dad what he thought of the venture.
‘I’ve seen too many wars, ‘ he said. And he wept all over again.