Talking and writing about history all the time, you sometimes forget its impact and the dire consequences of not representing it accurately. Indulge me, dear Reader, whilst I talk about this, today, the saddest, the grimmest of all days.
This photo was taken around 1916 and I often post it on the blog, around November 11th. It’s the only photo I have of my grandad with his older brother, in uniform. My grandad, Billie, (soldier on left) would have been about 17, here. His brother, Norris, (on the right) would have been about 18. Like millions across Europe, they fought the ‘war to end all wars’. Billie adored Norris so much that when Norris joined up, he ran away under age – joining a different local regiment, in the mistaken belief they’d at least be together on the front line.
In 1917, Norris was killed during an action when a foxhole collapsed on him and several of his men (he was a corporal and that morning they had ‘gone over the top’). 19 when he died. My grandfather survived that War and was re-enlisted in 1939. He survived WW2 – his regiment being present during the Blitz where they helped put out fires and were on anti-aircraft guns, and he was a rare survivor of the catastrophic bombing of the Rex Cinema in Antwerp (popped out of the film for a cigarette as the movie bored him. Cinema – with around 1000 people inside – took a direct hit. He was unscathed). And was amongst the soldiers who liberated Belsen. Now that surely was the war to end all wars.
We’ve had peace in Europe for 75 years and real accord for the past 47 years. Thanks to people like him, right across Europe, who said “No more”. For me, one of the ugliest spectacles (and let’s face it, there have been many) of this past 4 years, has been people of my generation invoking history to justify the unjustifiable. For me, that Blitz spirit crap is an abomination; a disgusting and depraved plundering of history. Why do we look at the past if we can’t learn from it? My grandfather fought through both world Wars – he saw the depths of human vileness. He saw a number of infamous WW1 actions because he was in them (unlike some of our politicians’ ancestors, who, unlike most of our’s, were safely behind the lines, no doubt). He witnessed Belsen in 1945. But he once told a family member the worst thing he ever went through himself, was the Blitz – when his regiment were briefly stationed in London. He saw what civilians endured. He said it was more terrifying than anything else, any action he was ever in. Idiots who blithely invoke the ‘Blitz spirit’ – imagining it was all Vera Lynn singalongs – they are living testament to how history shouldn’t be softened or sentimentalised. In fact, to sentimentalise history has proven to be dangerous. Look where it has led. To this shameful day.
Sometimes, I wonder what the point is of immersing yourself in a life where you talk about the past. But recent events have proved, it’s deeply important because if people with some kind of probity and rigour don’t do it, the past – like the Brexiteers’ annexing of ‘Blitz spirit’ – will be requisitioned by carpet-baggers like our current cabinet.
One story I heard several times about the lady in the photo below, my great grandmother, Emily Stephenson Lister. Norris was her eldest son. She had five sons. I have five sons, so I get it. You adore all your children, but your firstborn is your firstborn. His body wasn’t found until after the War and even then it was never fully identified – six (I think) men died together in that foxhole and their remains were impossible to tell apart. So they were buried as ‘unknown soldiers’ although they were kind of ‘known’. He is in one of those six graves.
From October, 1917, Emily – like thousands/millions of mothers across Europe – all she knew was her son was “missing in action”. Technically not dead as no body had been found. You know what she did the whole rest of her life? Every night, when she went to bed, she left the kitchen light on. In case her beloved firstborn came home in the night. She left the light on for him to guide him home.
Tonight, at 11, like thousands of others, I will be lighting a candle in my window. A light to guide us home, or one in a chain across these islands, part of a beacon. Just as my great grandmother did even though, in her case, it was hopeless. For us, there is still a glimmer of hope that one day this nightmare will be over and we’ll be home. I hope the EU leaves a light on for us. And for us here, who don’t want any of this disaster, if you can do it safely…