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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Letter to My Grandfather

For most of the time I knew you, I didn’t know you.  I was a child, and you were an important man with a prickly moustache and charred breath.   You drove a Rolls Royce.  The ride was so smooth after our Campervan that it made me sick, but you wouldn’t let me open the window.  It was electric, sliding down at the press of a button.  Not a toy.

You played golf, drank gin, and were the Deputy Chairman of the Cheshire County Council, Tory, of course.  You impressed me, but mostly you frightened me.   

In 1914, six days after your eighteenth birthday, you answered Kitchener’s Call to Arms and enlisted in The First Hundred Thousand.  With no public school or university background, you managed nevertheless to get yourself a commission.  You were wounded on the Somme, only surviving by playing dead while German soldiers picked over the bodies.  You won the Military Cross for your gallantry at Passchendale; another for your part at Givency, missing the DSO by a whisker.   All this I knew about you.  You were brave, ambitious and competent.  You fought for what you had now, and, quite rightly, had charge over it.

When I was fifteen, you fell ill.  So ill, that my father was called to your bedside in Liverpool to say goodbye.  By the time he arrived, though, it was all over.  You were already asking for the Financial Times.

When I next saw you, you had changed.  Thinner, your waistcoat and jacket drooped off you in folds; there was a half inch gap between your neck and your collar; your suit trousers hung like a clown’s from their braces.  You still enjoyed a pink gin before supper, but you sipped it over a conversation and gave up the cigarettes.  You smiled more, laughed, listened.

I went to university, and my political views became more pronounced.  I marched in every CND rally I could find, and the eighties were full of them.  Peace was the thing, I protested, not war.  You, whose beliefs had been unchallenged for eighty years, paid attention to your upstart granddaughter.  Then you said, quietly, in your wet ex-smoker’s voice, “You’re young.  This is your world now.”

After you died, aged 90, a couple of dusty suitcases turned up in your attic.  Inside were your letters from the Western Front, to a girl back home in Liverpool. 

You are a boy of nineteen, with no parents, no background to support you.  A kid, who has fallen in love with a pretty woman.  She’s a little out of your league, five years older, an only child from a well to-do family. Your manners are impeccable, as you await her permission to address her by her Christian name, Muriel.  You should like awfully to have a chance of getting to know her properly. 

You write cheerfully, about everything.  You’re looking forward to fresh butter and a pot of marmalade coming up that night; you’re grateful for the socks and chocolates.  There is an awful row, you explain, if a chap gets Trench Feet but it’s sometimes difficult in eighteen inches of water, with no dug outs or shelters, to avoid it.  You have had some rain lately, it rather mucked up the drains in the trenches.  It’s sunny again now and you are counting the days till your next leave.

You are matter-of-fact about casualties.  “A Lewis gun opened fire on us.  It wounded Holmes’s observer, missed Holmes, killed my observer, missed me and afterwards killed one of the other two men.  Holmes and I had to crawl in on the post to tell them to stop firing, rather a rotten job.”  Very occasionally your tone dips.  “Please excuse me,” you beg, “for the uninteresting letter, for I am feeling awfully tired, dirty and fed up.  I have lost some of my kit and a good many of my men.”     

It is Muriel who keeps you buoyant.  You were just remembering, you say, how wonderful it was to watch her breathing.  “You’ve got the most beautiful eyes, hair, everything,” you write.  “I can’t help thinking of you, the little curl in front of your ear, your beautiful eyelashes, your waist which was made to be hugged, your lovely slim arms.” 

You come out of the line at Givency, and the next day describe your billet.  The Quarter- Master had just turned up with champagne, fruits, red wine, lime juice, soda water and sardines, “so we ought to be alright,” you say.  “I only need you here to make it paradise.”

You would have ticked Dad off for publishing these private letters between you and Granny.  I’m glad you couldn’t stop him, because the originals are now in the Imperial War Museum so historians can find out firsthand what it was like to be in the midst of battles, whose names are already as iconic as Agincourt and Waterloo. You would have been very proud.  And I am privileged to watch, admire and love you from the other end of your life.