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Wednesday, June 29, 2016
My father fought in WW1, and my mother learned Esperanto – this is what they would have thought of Brexit by Robert Fisk
“Britain, right or wrong.” My Dad also used to say that, just to make me mad. Born in 1899 and married to a much younger woman – my mother Peggy was only 25 when she married Bill in 1945 – he was a brave soldier of the Great War, a hard working chartered accountant, a man who believed in paying his bills on time, who was scrupulously loyal to his wife and his friends but who, alas, could be a bigot, a bully, an outrageous racist, a pint-in-the-hand enemy of immigration.
Long after he’d retired as Borough Treasurer of Maidstone, he continued to work voluntarily for the National Savings movement, and he’d return from London in the late 1960s complaining that everyone he’d seen on the tube train had been “as black as the ace of spades”.
Some of this was said to enrage his precocious, arrogant, super-liberal lefty late-teenage son. Bill liked to argue – to the point where I would later abandon him and my poor Mum in Maidstone, and storm off back to my reporting assignments in Belfast or Beirut in the hope that I wouldn’t have to see him for many years.
I was partly educated in Dublin – I gained a PhD in politics at Trinity College – and my father knew of my great affection for Ireland. So he knew what he was doing when he announced one day that the Irish had only themselves to blame for their 19th century famine – they were too lazy, he said, and too drunk to grow more than potatoes – and after that, I don’t think I spoke to him for more than an hour during the rest of his life. When he was dying in a Maidstone nursing home, I didn’t go to see him.
I was a European rather than an Englishman. You’d think at the time that Bill was – as we would say today – a Brexit man, through and through. My gentle, thoughtful, infinitely patient Mum – who became a magistrate and sought leniency for poor offenders and came to distrust the word of Kent Police – literally wrung her hands in anguish as she repaired and re-repaired the damaged, hopeless relationship between her husband and her son.
Poor Peggy, she did not deserve this. Nor did my Dad. I have written before of how just after the First World War, 2nd Lt Bill Fisk of the King’s Liverpool Regiment refused to command a firing squad to execute a British soldier for murder – a magnificent and brave decision which destroyed his military career and was, I later realised, perhaps the finest act of his life.
The condemned ‘Brit’ was in fact an Australian in a British regiment and he was shot by others at Le Havre, but Bill emerged an honourable man. Yet later, he became an advocate for corporal and capital punishment. As a member of a rent assessment tribunal, I remember him refusing to lower the cost of a couple’s rented accommodation in Maidstone because he suspected they were not married. Was it age that produced this profound cruelty? Or because the cruellest of all front lines had eventually penetrated his own mind?
Bill hated socialists, communists, Bertrand Russell, Hugh Gaitskell (because of the latter’s denunciation of Suez), Harold Wilson and – before he died – just about every politician who hadn’t fought in the First or Second World Wars with the exception of Margaret Thatcher. Of course, his favourite warrior was Winston Churchill whose gloomy portrait hung over the fireplace of our dining room in Maidstone until, after Bill’s death in 1992 at the grand old age of 93, my mother asked me if it would be disrespectful to take it down. I said it wouldn’t be. And down it came.
These past few days, however, in the aftermath of the Brexit catastrophe, I’ve begun to ask myself how Bill and Peggy would have voted, and what they really thought of Europe, the continent which we have just aborted from our lives. And of the British politicians who led us – through selfishness and lies – into this impasse. Certainly Bill judged politicians of every class and party according to their appearance. He would have spotted at once the problem of Boris, Michael and Nigel. The first he would have identified as a clown, the second as a dodgy public schoolmaster and the third as a “Spiv”, a word my father used a lot and which oddly catches Farage rather well.
Cameron he would have seen through at once because he never trusted public relations men, and other Tories would have met with his disfavour because – and this was a feeling he shared with my mother – he never trusted anyone whose hair fell over their collar. George Osborne might have escaped his immediate suspicion but Bill would, I think, have doubted whether the ‘Britain, right or wrong’ motif came from experience and knowledge of history or was merely a cliché brought out of the cupboard to serve young Osborne’s purpose in wriggling out of his lie about the emergency post-Brexit budget.
But let’s go back to 1914, when Bill tried to join the British army under-age so he could join his school chums and fight in France. His mother – my grandmother, who I never met – dragged him back from the recruiting office at Preston but couldn’t prevent him joining the Cheshire Regiment in 1916. He wanted to fight for little Catholic Belgium, and for France whose history – Napoleon’s, of course – and whose army of First World War “poilus”, Bill admired enormously. Padraig Pearse changed Dad’s plans and he was sent to Cork to counter Sinn Fein after the 1916 Rising, which saved him from the first day of the Somme battle among whose 20,000 dead were some of his school friends. I still have their postcards to Bill, urging him to join them at the front.
In 1918, Bill was at last sent to France – I have another postcard of my very handsome 2nd lieutenant father leaning against a wall with “Arras, 1918” written in his own hand in fountain pen in the corner. He took pictures of the trenches and no-man’s land – cameras were officially forbidden, but perhaps he had his unborn son’s reporter’s instinct – and he always remembered liberating Cambrai with the Canadian army, its streets on fire. There is movie film of this inferno and Bill must have known some of the soldiers on the footage although they are impossible to identify today. I still have Bill’s English-French dictionary. He stayed on as a soldier in France after the war and there is some evidence of a young French woman he may have cared for, a lady’s straw hat in the corner of a photograph in which Bill is standing in trench puttees, another distant picture of Bill and a woman in the back of an ancient French car, two tickets to the races at Longchamp in 1919.
In the late 1930s, not long before the Second World War, Peggy, daughter of a middle class female café-owner and her Sussex baker husband, travelled to Paris with her teenage friends from Maidstone Girls Grammar School. There are pictures of Peggy standing in the 6th Arrondissement. She had studiously learned the extraordinary language of Esperanto – a 19th century attempt to build a new form of communication from the roots of European languages. “People in France understood me in Esperanto!” my Mum would declare triumphantly when I was old enough to understand, although I always thought it might have been easier if she had simply learned French. She kept postcards of the France that was soon to fall to Nazi Germany, and guide books to the exhibitions of Paris.
After the Second World War, when Master Robert was still in short trousers, Bill, as borough treasurer of Maidstone, volunteered to travel to the ruins of the Reich to help German accountants in Hamburg set up a new local authority. In the years that followed, he insisted that I travel with both him and Peggy to France and Germany, to learn about Europe and history. Of course, Bill took me to the Somme but also to the 1916 French battlefield of Verdun and my mother took colour footage of my father and myself walking between the French crosses at Fort Douaumont. There are snapshots aplenty of Bill and Peggy and Robert in the Black Forest of Germany, in Strasbourg, in Paris. Yes, my Mum and Dad wanted to me to know that I was a European, not just a “Brit”.
Why else would they have spent so much money on those currency-restricted visits to France and Germany and Belgium? Why else did they encourage me as a schoolboy to travel back to France alone, to visit other great French cities, to travel to Amsterdam to look at the art of Rembrandt? True, my father hated the French immigration officials as they sullenly stamped our passports at Boulogne – yes, this really is what might await us again after Brexit! – but loathed even more the Dover customs officers who smelled my father’s guilt the moment he arrived at the Marine Station with his higher-than-allowance boxes of Capstan cigarettes buried among his trousers and waistcoat, his jacket and old regimental tie.
We used to cross to France on the old British Railways’ “Shepperton Ferry”, built in 1932 and used as a minelayer in the Second World War, and my mother would recall this most uncomfortable of vessels when I and my friends arrived to see her in Kent where, gripped by Parkinsons, she was to die in 1998. She wanted to be told, repeatedly, of the marvels of the Eurostar, of how fast this symbol of the EU passed from Folkstone to Calais. Could we see the English Channel from the train, she used to ask?
I inherited my Dad’s books when he died and I have them still; hundreds of volumes on the two world wars, of course, Churchill’s biography of Marlborough (signed by the author) and works on British history and my own old child’s copy of “Our Island Story”, but also histories of the Tsars, of the French kings and the wars of the Spanish succession and the Hundred Years War and the new Italy of Garibaldi and the dark history of Germany and Stalinist Russia. Because Bill was also a child of Europe.
In her last years, Peggy and her sister – my Auntie “Bibby” (her real name was Dorothy) – splurged their savings to take week-long tours of France and Spain and Italy. My mother went to Venice and saw Rome and revisited the Paris of her youth. They were, I realise today, Europeans as much as they were British. My father too, I now believe. As my French improved over the years and he heard me speaking in French on the phone and knew that I was giving lectures on the Middle East in French in Paris, Bill would express his pleasure that his son could speak another European language.
Years before, when I was still at school, he had invited the son of our hotel manager in the French city of Beauvais – his name was Michel Moutier and I have long lost touch with him – to stay with us in Kent, insisting he speak French at the breakfast table so that he and my mother and I could listen to him in his own language. And as the years went by – and later, of course, I was guilty of forgetting my father’s foresight and his broadmindedness at such a great age – he would encourage me to bring my European non-Brit friends home to Maidstone to meet him and Peggy.
I doubt if he ever recovered from his fear of the unknown – of the alien – which his racist remarks about black people obviously reflected. He sometimes used the word “n****r”, which made me want to disown him, although he took care never to use such vile expressions when others were around. But he was also a man of his time and I must admit that he was a titan compared to the midget politicians who have, for personal gain and ambition, led us into the Brexit perdition. My father would have said “Britain, right or wrong”, but Bill, who was also an accountant, knew what “wrong” was, and he and Peggy would have voted Remain.
Though he might have disdained his music, Bill – as my own wife pointed out to me — would surely have agreed with Sting’s description of politicians as “game show hosts”. They are men who could not have known history as my father lived it. And when Cameron spoke of the “swarms” of refugees at Calais, my Dad would not have understood him. He would have thought of the swarms of German Messerschmitts circling over Calais in 1940 to join the Luftwaffe air fleet setting off to bomb Kent, where he lived and where he would marry my mother and where I would be born in 1946. He did not forget the lessons of war.
When I went back to Maidstone to see my mother after his death, Bill had left on his desk a framed postcard, a photo of himself as a young soldier. It showed him and a comrade riding British army horses behind the front lines in First World War in France, one of the animals with white fur above its hooves. On the back of the card, my father had written: “Self on ‘White Socks’ near Hazebruk.” Harzebrouk is in French Flanders; it was my last sight of my European soldier Dad.