I never swore, until the day I gave up my teaching career: and then I began to access quite a lot of interesting expletives. I think I have young Andrew, for that; but more of him later.
I was in my third year, here on Earth, when the Second World War was declared (in a not particularly stentorian kind of voice) by Neville Chamberlain, on September 3rd, 1939. I’d been sensing that “something” was up (being a sensitive child) for quite a while and the tension I could see on my Dad’s face, had me on a personal ‘red alert.’ And this was the day I was to become aware of some, previously unexplained, aspects of his history, when he began to weep. “Only twenty years, and here comes another one.”
I’d been sitting under the table, shaping the walls of a house, out of a set of dominoes making it as small as possible, so I might build them higher.When I’d heard the word “War,” I’d shuffled out, and asked what it meant. With his head in his hands, my Dad had said: “War is Hell. Will we never learn?” And that was when the question of what it was that created conflict between people seeded itself in my mind. This is the only raisin d’etre I’ve been able to figure out, to explain why so many of my life choices meant I put myself into the company of those who didn’t share my way of thinking. And, believe me, I didn’t have to. There’s more than one way to discover what we’re made of. This was my choice!
My Dad was an elderly parent but I hadn’t known, until now, that he fought in the 1914-18 carnage; and had kept a promise to look after his best mate’s pregnant lady friend, if ‘something’ was to happen to him. I think I might have begun my education in euphemisms, also, on that day. That something did happen, when my friend was killed, beside him; and my dad had married the young woman, after their daughter was born. Not long after, his new wife (a sickly woman) had died, explaining who the young woman (in her early twenties) was, who made occasional visits to our home. I had a step-sister. Not that she was made welcome by my mother, who had her own emotional problems, being at war with herself.
For while, even though we lived in a small seaside town, just over twenty miles from the coast of France, life continued as normal. It was in the spring of 1940, that this strange and uneasy time began to escalate, and I began to take as ‘normal’ my Dad waking me up in the night, putting me on the back seat of his bicycle, and riding down into the town, to “see what was going on.” What I saw, on one May night, were many exhausted looking men, wrapped in blankets and drinking from large mugs of tea, in the Royal Marine Barracks, who’d just been rescued by a flotilla of assorted small boats and fishing vessels who’d answered Winston Churchill’s call for help in rescuing 338,226 of stranded men, off the beaches of Dunkirk. there has never been, and never will be again, such a heroic response. This, I knew, as a four year old: that I was witnessing history, and great acts of true heroism, and I have never forgotten it.
In the following July, the Battle of Britain began in deadly earnest, as the German Luftwaffe made their daily attacks over Dover, Folkestone, and Deal. I watched those outnumbered young pilots, whom Churchill had christened “The Few,” take on its might, from our back garden (with never a smidgen of fear) sending up my admiration and respect, for their valour. Their average life expectancy was twenty two years; slightly older than the handsome eldest brother of my next-door best friend, who was to be shot down, aged twenty. I have never forgotten the anguished cries of his mother, when two RAF personnel came to tell her. Oh, yes, Andrew: we’re getting closer, now.
One of those young pilots was an American serving in the Canadian Air Force, after enlisting in 1940, and being sent to England, for combat duty, in July 1941. Later that year, composed one of the most loved poems to come out of the conflict, before crashing to his death, aged nineteen. It was this poem I chose to read to a Fifth Year Class (not one that had, for the most part, much interest in English Literature) in the last lesson of what had seemed like a long week that had been devoted to studying the reasons (across the school syllabus) for the 1000 Bomber Raid on Cologne, in May 1942: and this, the 45th anniversary. So, I read “High Flight.”
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds-and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of-Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlight silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through the footless halls of air…
Up, up the long delirious , burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or eagle flew-
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
These students were fifteen years old; so (as with most education) it’s only with a flight of imagination that they could transport themselves back to the barest of appreciation of what those young men might have felt, as they’d run to their waiting Spitfires (despite the frequent showings of War Movies, on television) and rather too many in this class seemed to lack that quality. Still, I had felt enough of an engagement from my introduction (with the majority) and reasons for reading the poem: except for Andrew, who’d been up to no good, for the past week (attempting to set light to a dustbin outside one of the prefabricated classrooms; tearing up several of his subject notebooks, as fuel; and generally being ‘mouthy.’
It was more of a personal musing, as I raised the question of these young men,l who’d fought for the preservation of their country, and its inherent values; as well as being so outnumbered b a truly evil force. “They were fighting for a better world,” I’d said. “I wonder what they would think, if they could see what we had made of it?” And that was when Andrew said his piece; and words that were to change my life. “Well, they were fucking fools, then.”
I remember the shafts of sunlight coming through the high windows; the sudden (and very shocked) silence as the class awaited my reaction. I remember that my hands were deep in the pockets of my dirndl skirt; and that they had suddenly clenched themselves into fists. And I remember the silent words that came onto my mind, as I stepped forward: “I’m going to murder you, you fucking little bastard.” There’s a line from ‘Vitai Lampada’ (The Torch of Life), by Sir Henry Newbolt: “There’s a breathless hush in the close, tonight, ten to make and the match to win… “Play up and play the game.'” It’s all about how a schoolboy, a future soldier, learns about selfless commitment to a perceived duty. Yes, a generational kind of thing; and I knew all about the way it was satirised by those who’d fought in the First World War; and the inadequacies of their leaders.
And I’d read enough books that had discussed the morality of the bombings of both Cologne and Dresden, to know the complexities of revenge.And yet, and yet (as were Robert Fisk’s thoughts, in a superb essay on “Deadly Skies: the bloody truth about the Battle of Britain, seventy years on,” those young men died for Us. As Fisk, so cogently, puts it: “despite the historic manipulation of both the battle and Churchill by those miserable politicians who want to maintain our dishonest, illegal wars abroad today, his words (like the Spitfires they flew in) retain their integrity. So, when you go to see that fine film, ‘Darkest Hour,’ think on. There was an ‘essential rightness of it all, when Britain did the right thing, and fought the right battle, at the right time. And won.”
So, all of this (and for the small dog, called Jack, who howled at the Luftwaffe) standing with me and my Dad, in our back garden, watching the ‘right thing’ being done, is when I discovered a righteous rage, and a colourful vocabulary. Half an hour later, I walked into the headmaster’s study, and handed in my notice to leave an eighteen year long teaching career. The best thing I ever did, and all thanks to Andrew.
What that ‘breathless hush’ did for me, was to condense my accumulated gatherings of past compromises in, basically, incompatible mores that I could (and would) no longer sustain. Joseph Green, in his ‘Moral Tribes,Emotion, Reason; and the Gap Between Us and Them’ looks at different tribes (with different values) who fight (not because they are fundamentally selfish) but because they have incompatible visions of what a moral society should be: that is, if they think about such things, of course.
Carl von Clausewitz wrote a famous treatise on the Philosophy of War, concluding that it cannot be an end in itself but is ‘politics by a different means, not existing only for its own sake, but serving some purpose for the state.’ Or tribe, or family?
There are (enough, already) innumerable ‘opinions,’ ‘directives,’ ‘self-serving systems’ in the world that are long past their sell-by date; but, still exist. But, killing each other, for the sake of any of them; and what passes for ‘fighting for peace,’ is exactly what someone wrote on that Brighton lavatory wall, if you ask me.