Leave A Light On

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…

#LeaveALightOn

ABOVE: Great uncle. BELOW: My great grandparents, Emily and John. Soldiers: on the left, my grandad, Billie. On the right, my great uncle Norris.

7 thoughts on “Leave A Light On

  1. I am saddened by your family histories and heartened by your comments. I was taken in my pram to rallies against WW2 tough my father joined up when war inevitable. Though living in Australia now, I still have my UK passport and love to visit. Sad that those hopes for nations to work together have been allowed to slip away. Here in Hobart we hold a vigil for peace twice a month and get much encouragement.
    Love your knitting history. Some of my ancestors were from Yorkshire

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  2. Beautifully written piece Penelope and I couldn’t agree more. The story of your great grandmother leaving a light on for her son is so incredibly heartfelt. I hope Europe leaves a light on for us. I’m in Scotland and as a nation independence is being sought whereby we would rejoin the EU. The support for this has only grown since the Brexit referendum (I voted to remain in the Scottish referendum but that was on the premise we would remain within the EU). The reunification of Ireland could become a possibility now too. The landscape of Britain will change. I’m immensely proud of my English Dawson roots so this self-harm hurts to witness.
    Lindsay x

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  3. Hear, hear! I and all my friends feel the same – it’s odd, but it almost feels like being in a war. I’m reading Francis Partridge’s war diaries at the moment and the high tension and anxiety she expressed is similar to how I feel now.
    I will leave a light on.
    Your follower with the weaving “temple” – we met at Masham

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    1. Oh hello you! I keep meaning to write about that temple…

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  4. My father fought in WWII. He was a POW in Stalag 12A at Limburg. He was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. I heard of the hardships and atrocities of that war and do not romanticize war in the least. I feel I lived vicariously through that war. His greatest regrets were over the things that he had done.

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  5. I’m with you. I’m 68 and I’ll never understand how so many of my generation were happy to jeopardise their grandchildren’s future for very dubious reasons.

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    1. I wish the Remain campaign had harped on more about the things that quickly became apparent after June, 2016. But am less angry about their failing us (as 48% of us still voted to stay), than I am about the illegalities of the Leave campaign which have gone unpunished.

      Liked by 1 person

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