Saturday, December 13, 2008

Silver beet among the gold

My father in the war: a volunteer, he sailed for England
as a 22nd Battalion warrant officer shortly after his
wedding on St Patrick's Day, 1940. The battalion spent
some months stationed in Kent before being sent to
Greece to stem the advancing German tide. That didn't
last long. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner,
mostly in the NCO camp (Stalag 383) at Hohenfels,
Bavaria. He hardly talked about the war at all to us
children. All the evidence we have indicates that it
changed him for the worse. The difference between his
loving letters to my mother early in the war, and the
black-tempered father we knew, testifies to that.

A rare reference to the war: once, at lunchtime, when I
was complaining about having to eat silver beet (a
perfectly reasonable objection, one might think), he
rounded on me and roared out something to the effect
that, in prison camp, they’d have been glad just to
scrabble for stalks from the dirt and I’d better eat up and
be thankful for what I had.

I think Keith Ovenden may have it right when, in his
biography of Dan Davin, describing the terrible things
men experienced in war, the blood and the gore and the
pain, he goes on to say:

This, surely, was the true terror of war, and it could
only be broached as a topic of domestic conversation,
if at all, by reformulation into something else. From
this sprang the habit of camouflaging ugly truths that,
even if expressed, were otherwise unlikely to be
understood...their presence, whether distorted in the
recollection, or suppressed into tormented silence,
was corrosive. They ate away at a soldier’s sense of
moral connection with others, promoting a degree of
alienation that is easy to underestimate.

The American poet Louis Simpson has also written: 'To a
foot-soldier, war is almost entirely physical. That is why
some men, when they think about war, fall silent.
Language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those
who have experienced it absolutely—the dead.'

Davin himself, in a very good short story called 'Not
Substantial Things,' poignantly describes the moment when
when he realized that the war was going to end and that he
and his mates would live on:

The fact was that chaps like me had got older without
noticing it. We’d never give anything again what we’d
given the Div. We’d never bring the same energy to
anything that we’d brought to things like the
break-through at Minqar Qaim or the assault on
Cassino. And we’d never be able to make friends again
the same way or drink and laugh and die the same way.
We’d used up what we had and we’d spend the rest of
our lives looking over our shoulders.

And not at their wives and children.

Tellingly, Davin adds this observation: once the
excitement of war was gone, 'A man’d soon have to start up
again all the old fights within himself that used to go on in
the days when there was no danger to his skin.'

Denis Glover, coming home from the war, sank into gloom
at the first sight of New Zealand from the ship. It was like
returning to jail, he said.

Michael Cunningham in The Hours on how it was after the
war: 'So many of these men are not quite what they were
(no one likes to talk about it); so many women live
uncomplainingly with the quirks and silences, the fits of
depression, the drinking.'

What did my father do immediately after the war? It seems
that, like many New Zealand soldiers, he spent several
months in England waiting to be shipped back home. There
is some suggestion that he spent at least part of that time in
hospital. He returned to New Zealand in July or August
1945 and, before long, my mother conceived me. During the
war I was inconceivable.

All day long he was fighting for you,
And he didn’t even know your name.

—Phil Collins song lyric


Truth Seeker said...

The timing in my family - both sides - meant my father and grandfathers were either too young or too old to be none of them served in WW I or WW II.

My family life was boringly/thankfully unmarred by anything other than the usual human confusion, unaffected by terror or horror. Just sex, drugs and - later - rock and roll.

Gerald Jackson said...

Thanks Denis. That was an interesting post.

A few years ago, during one of my periodic visits to NZ, I heard that Victoria University Press had published a book by a woman based on her PhD about how the psychological effect of the war on returned servicemen had shaped the 1950s more than we realized. I cannot remember more than that but certainly your observations chime in with her findings.

My own father didn't make it to the war (it stopped on the day he was supposed to go operational as a pilot) but I had great uncles who never spoke of their experiences at Gallipoli, in the Middle East and at Paschandale, small cryptic jokes aside. I think it no surprise that they both failed to raise any kids.

But certainly, whether or not our immediate family went to the wars, I think that both our parents' and our own generation were deeply affected by the silences and unstated memories that the returnees brought home. Normally, we focus on the 1950s and blame its rigid conformities on the war (WWII) but I'd be interested to know how similar or different were the 1920s. My intuition is that they were different (it was for instance the time of the Jazz Age), even though far greater numbers of NZ men went to WWI and proportionately many more were killed or injured/disabled than in WWII. Why this is, I don't know. Ideas?

Our local RSA was a rowdy place, not really the sort of place that truly respectable people frequented (or so was my impression), even though my uncle was often there - a hard, boozing and sometimes violent man - someone best to be wary of, I felt. However, the RSA must also have been a place where old mates could drop their guard and voice their memories. I'd never thought of this before. Thanks for that.

Thanks, too, for your Nine to Noon sessions each week, which I listen to on my iPod here in Copenhagen. Sometimes you come across as a crusty old codger but that (I suspect) is the programme's listener demographic, myself included (sigh).

Best wishes


PS: As usual, your post title gives no indication of the subject matter, hence no teaser inviting us flea-like readers to click on the post. Apparently, you are not someone who has worked as a subeditor!

Anonymous said...

Aaah Gerald, when in your PS you say;
"Apparently, you are not someone who has worked as a subeditor!" methinks you either know the man not at all, but perhaps so well a throwaway line in jest...?

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