For some years now, I’ve written a post on Remembrance Sunday for my Grandfather, Alfred and his wife, Ethel. This year it’s on my Write Out Loud blog: The wider web. You can find it, if you wish, by following this link https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=96777
It features my favourite David Constantine poem, and it focuses on the largely ignored wives and daughters and widows of The Fallen. It’s a plea for them to be remembered, the ones who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives, smashed to smithereens.
While I was writing it, for some reason I found myself thinking of my German brother-in-law, Frank Rupp. His father was sent to fight on the Eastern Front; Frank, and his mother, never saw him again until 1947 when he was finally released from a Russian prison camp. I remembered that when Fank and my sister-in-law came to spend Christmasses with us in the mid-1960s how disturbed…maybe horrified is the right word…by Christmas television in England. The schedules were full of WW2 movies. You know the kind of thing. The great escape. Where eagles dare. Heroes of Telemark. It wasn’t just that the Germans were uniformly presented as either idiots or sadists. It was the fact that this was considered family entertainment at Christmas. He simple couldn’t grasp the idea that it was tolerated. And he was right.
Fifty years on there’s a channel called Yesterday. As far as I can tell, about half its scheduling is devoted to WW2, and about half of that to Hitler. It’s appalling. Who watches it? Why? I’m 76 and I grew out of that stuff by the age of 12 or so….I had my fill of The dam busters, The Colditz Story and all the rest of it. Something else struck me; all my Remembrance posts are about WW1 and my grandparents’ part in it. Why? Maybe it was being brought up on a diet of WW1 poetry. But it’s not good enough.
So, for this Remembrance Sunday I want to remember the ones I knew who came through WW2 and hardly ever talked about it. My father-in-law, Stan Rogers, who spent the war in India and Burma, in recon. behind Japanese lines. The forgotten army, they called themselves. The history teacher I worked with who survived the fiasco of Arnhem. The supply teacher, shot through the throat by a random bullet fired off by a Stuka over Scarborough while he was shaving in his attic digs. Another Stan who was at Anzio, fought up the Italian peninsula, sent to India, where he still was just before partition and had his skull bashed in by a rock in a religious riot. The uncle who was at the liberation of Belsen, and remained in a black depression for years. None of them ever understood the absurd glorification of war, mainly by men who never experienced it. They kept their counsel.
So remember them, too. The quiet ones.
Short back and sides
It’s fine, Stan’s hair. His wife, Vera, says:
“He gets it from his mother.
They were all fine haired, her side.”
He’s soft-skinned, too. Big hands
with liver spots. They tremble, agitate
an invisible test tube, like a chemist.
Big ears, lobes like small ox-tongues.
He likes his hair cut short.
Curious to be holding his head still,
gentling the clippers in the back of his neck,
hearing the buzz, feeling light hairs fall.
I’ve eaten snake, he says. A python.
He could butcher anything the lads brought in.
He’ll not eat curry. When you smell that
you know you’re closing on a village.
On Recon. they’d take the headman’s son.
Shackle him on the bonnet of the Jeep.
See, if no one made a fuss we’d know
no Japs was up the trail. Drive him for a bit
then let him off. The skin of his scalp is fragile,
scissors cold on the pink of the skull.
His goalkeeper’s hands beat a soft
tattoo against his knee, When he remembers
he clasps them like a handshake, or a prayer.
In jungle once, he came upon a pal
pinioned to a tree, opened up from throat to groin,
his piled entrails at his feet, a black buzz of flies.
I’ve never told our Vera that. I tidy round his neck.
I’ll shake the teatowel outside on the step,
watch the hair blow, like dandelion clocks.
His hand have freed themselves.
He has forgotten them.
According to their cloth
I knew one man made a forced march in a column,
full pack and rifle; heat and scrub, humidity, thick dust;
forty miles in a single day and never knew a battle plan.
One man who fell from a plane
in a night full of parachutes,
the wind white silk ; the dark sound of planes
dwindling up into the night and him falling into fiasco;
who taught history, who clung to Communism
like a Tudor martyr to a relic.
Another who drove his truck
into a camp made out of rust and rot,
of wire and sweet black smoke and rags and sweat;
No one came to liberate him;
no one to take his eyes from the dark,
no-one to bring him back from the dead.
The one I loved most spun yarn
for uniforms and army blankets.
Reserved occupation. Conchie.
All the same to him. Nobody tried to kill me.
He cut his coat according to his cloth.
Took his suit lengths into Leeds,
to Jewish tailors, emigrés
in small dark shops in narrow streets.
You don’t choose where you are in history.
You cut your coat
and wear it.
From Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016