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If No One Speaks of Remarkable Things

June 15, 2014

In my idealistic teenage years, when I plotted breaking out of small town life and changing the world for the better, the one thing that never occurred to me was that my own father – a largely invisible presence in those days, knowable only from occasional harrumphing comments issued from behind a newspaper – had, while not yet out of his teens, had a small taste of doing exactly that.

You didn’t grow up in the shadow of a Normandy Veteran – you couldn’t, because they never talked about it. My parents had been married for nearly thirty years before my mother was even aware that my father had participated in the Battle of Normandy. But as anyone who grew up around the wartime generation will tell you, the differences between them and their offspring were profound. They tended to crystallise around two reliable flash-points: men’s hairstyles and Top of the Pops.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Top of the Pops in the world of the 1970s teenager. Even if you didn’t really like it, you had to watch it – if only so that you could join in the general slagging it off at school the next day. If, like most people, you lived in a house with no video recorder and only one telly, Thursdays were mostly spent in a state of heightened anxiety about how you were going to wrest control of the airwaves from their ‘natural’ arbiter over in his big arm chair.

But then, if you succeeded, what was your reward? Half an hour of excruciating embarrassment which you somehow had to tough out. Boy George (almost exactly the same age as me) put it best when he said – on one of those 1970s nostalgia-fests that crop up quite regularly on minority channels – that ‘there was only one programme a week you could watch, and you couldn’t even watch that without this chorus of disapproval going on behind you’. Anyone of George’s vintage who happened to be viewing must have smiled ruefully at the truth of it. I know I did.

The acquisition of perspective is a consolation of middle age. Watching re-runs of Top of the Pops these days, I can understand how bewildered my father must have felt. What he saw were effeminate young men prancing around on stage, hair ridiculously coiffured and playing tuneless music. “I canna tell whether they’m boys or girls!”. How often did he say that? By the time he was their age, he’d been in a theatre of war; now, the freedoms he’d thought he’d fought for seemed to have been subverted into something he no longer recognised.

It was the interpretation of that word ‘freedom’ that was at the heart of his dismay, or at least that’s how I see it now. To my father’s generation, it meant freedom from dictatorship and preservation of the certainties they’d always known – something that could only be achieved through the discipline and conformity required by the stupendous national effort to win the war. To later generations, it meant the opposite: individual freedom – the unhindered right to be true to oneself, and the right to be respected for being so. It’s a shift that continues to play out to this day.

As an origin myth, which seems to be how those of us born in post-war Britain are increasingly encouraged to view it, the power of the Normandy story is in many ways identical to that of the origin myth of the United States: focus. On an identifiable day, at an identifiable time, an identifiable group of storm-tossed people arrive by sea at an unpromising coast, an entire hostile continent stretched out before them. In the case of Normandy, that focus is sharpened still further by the fact that – at least for the time being – a few of the participants are still amongst us.

But it is just myth. The Normandy Landings, stunning in their audacity and planning and the bravery of those involved, shortened the war and could still have turned out very differently if General Eisenhower had hesitated and given German troops the time to strengthen and regroup – but the truth is that the Nazis were already facing defeat. The Allies were rolling them up in Italy and – far more depressingly for Hitler, who had always regarded it as the greatest prize – they were in headlong retreat in Russia. Beyond that, much of the power and wealth that enabled Great Britain to wage war in the first place was ultimately derived from exploiting lands and people outside Europe.

Having said all that though, actually visiting the Normandy beaches was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. Standing in the peace of the American cemetery above Omaha beach, surrounded by the graves of those young men – buried within sight of where they fell – I felt my life rewind. I could almost hear it. I had a great sense that the life of freedom and opportunity that those of us lucky enough to be born into post-war Western Europe have always enjoyed, really did begin on that spot. I felt an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude; but I also felt a connection, because through my father – my father – I shared a tiny piece of it too.

So the question I ask of myself, now that I have entered my own mature years, is whether the most significant thing about my own life is what my father did when he was nineteen. Much – although definitely not all – of what we watched on Top of the Pops is now revealed as nothing more than other forms of exploitation; of the acts, of the studio audience, and of us, the wider record-buying public. Of course I still love seventies music; and like most of my generation, I still feel in some sense defined by it. These days though, that peer-group solidarity has been tempered by an uneasy awareness that it’s not built on solid foundations. A taint has crept in.

The reckoning is complicated further by the knowledge that the Normandy veterans are very old men, and we have to seize our chances to honour them now, before they pass into history for good. One of the differences between those veterans who have lived on into old age and those who survived the war but have died since, is that the ones who are still around have reached the stage where they finally feel able to talk about it, and be celebrated for what they did. Or maybe some of them feel, ironically enough, that the past is the only place where they are really secure – so why not go there often?

I don’t resent the attention my father gets – how could I? – but it brings it home to me again that part of the reason I love him so much is because I can never do – will never get the chance to do – what he has done. I am proud beyond words that he belongs to me; but I have never been sure that I am quite worthy of him. Of course, he has never tried to make me feel like that, but I do wonder whether, in his private moments, he thinks I’ve had an easy life, an untested life, a life of drift.

To someone who wasn’t even born until 1961, it feels very odd to say that my relationship with my father has been mediated, and continues to be mediated, by the Second World War. Odd, but at the same time comforting, because it helps to make clear to me my own place in the world. I no longer want to get away from it. It’s a part of me; I embrace it.

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From → Odd and Ends

9 Comments
  1. pjaywg permalink

    “The acquisition of perspective is a consolation of middle age.” I couldn’t have said that better myself. And myth or no myth, I NEED to hear these remarkable things. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Pam. Do you remember my dad? We didn’t go to DDay 70 in the end because he thought it would all be too much for him, but if you ever get the chance to visit those beaches, take it. It is awe-inspiring.

    • pjaywg permalink

      I DO remember your dad. I remember the visit fondly.

  3. What a wonderful reflection on the bravery of your dad …and mine … and countless others. I had never thought of it all in quite this way but I was really moved by your evocation of the likes of us watching TOTP in the 70s, sharing a living room with our very own World War 2 veteran, and the gulf between us and our parents’ generation (“I canna tell whether they’m boys or girls!”) I share your overwhelming sense of gratitude for the remarkable unspoken-of things they did. A beautiful, profound piece of writing and a fitting tribute. Thank you.

  4. Thanks Tony. Glad you appreciated my attempt at a local accent! Seriously though, the history that was sitting right next to us. And we never knew.

  5. Phil Gillam permalink

    What a beautiful piece, written with a quiet tenderness and respect.
    And, yeah, what mixed emotions one now has when watching those Top of the Pops re-runs.
    I’m Tony’s brother and, yeah, remembering our own dad, we can really relate to what you say.

  6. Hi Phil, thanks very much. My Dad will be interested to hear that you have commented, as he enjoys reading your columns in the Shrewsbury Chronicle. I loved that piece you did around Christmas last year when you told the story of Tony falling down the coal hole!

  7. Think you already know the answer to that! 🙂 Actually, one reason I enjoyed it was because I could picture how you looked at the time it happened. Funny to think that when (if) you try to picture me, I probably still look primary school age too.

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