from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: General Montgomery and my Mother

General Montgomery
My Mother

July 6.  In his Memex 1.1 blog yesterday, my friend and colleague, John Naughton, reproduced the letter sent by General Montgomery to the troops about to launch the D-Day landing in 1944, which has turned up in the papers of his wife’s father.  ‘The time has come to strike the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe’ it begins.

I too have seen a copy of the message, sent not to my (as yet unmarried)  father, who was on a ship off the coast of West Africa, but my mother, who spent the war in an anti-aircraft unit, plotting incoming planes and V-bombs* – you may have seen the films in which uniformed young women push models across a map on a table before the order is given to the anti-aircraft gunners.  She was moved down to the south coast as part of the preparations for D-day and was sent the letter.

Her technical role in the war always puzzled me.  During her life as my mother she never once showed the slightest interest in, or affinity for, machines or science.  Her OU degree taken in her retirement was in literature and the social sciences.  I once asked her how she had been recruited for such a role.  She told me that when she was called up, she was given an aptitude test, which was to construct something out of Meccano.   She had spent her childhood playing with her younger brother’s set, made a model in no time, and was sent off to track aircraft. 

In the same way my father, a civil servant in later life with no responsibility for radio technology at work and no competence in it at home, was a chief petty officer in the navy specialising in the arcane skill of listening to Japanese Morse code.   Global conflict took people to places they never visited again, and caused them to learn capacities which died upon the instant peace was declared.

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from this wartime experience.

Either we humanities people have deep inside us a technical capacity which it requires a well-organised world war to bring out.   I have my doubts, but who knows.

Or major technical ventures, think of Bletchley Park, think of NASA, succeed by bringing together all sorts of skills, some scientific at a high level, but many others which have nothing to do directly with the science but nonetheless are crucial to the outcome  of the project.  My new book, The History of Solitude, is dedicated to an aunt by marriage, who died not long ago, and who was at Bletchley Park in the war.  Later in life she was, again, a literary woman, who eventually published books of fiction, poetry and memoir.  She was sent to Bletchley because she was (a) very bright, (b) had security clearance, and (c) had fluent German.  Not a codebreaker, but, along with many others in the huts, critical to the outcome.

So, perhaps, with the skills discovered or mobilised to counter Covid-19.  Except, as world wars go, this has not been well organised.   That is to say not by the British.  The Germans have beaten us hands down.

*A propos my last post on cherries, I discover that V-Bombs were colloquially known in German as ‘kirschkern’ – cherry stones.  I don’t know why.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Prince Phillip again.

Prince Phillip

June 15.  This is the same story told by David Maughan Brown on June 10, from the same perspective.

I too was a Deputy Vice Chancellor when the Royals came to my university.  I too ended up spending time with the Duke of Edinburgh (we both occupied, after all, the same rung in our organisations).

There was some flummery.  Ladies in Waiting really exist, and are indeed well-dressed women who stand around waiting to be useful.  One of them told me that the Queen was excited about the bus we had hired to transport her from one side of the campus to the other, because she had never in her life travelled on one.  Perhaps Ladies in Waiting have a hidden sense of humour.  I was gravely instructed in how to ask the Queen if she wanted to use the loo.  Unfortunately, I have now forgotten the exact form of words, but as she and I are now in perpetual lockdown, the occasion is unlikely to arise in the future.

After an opening ceremony, we divided our forces.  The Vice Chancellor, Janet Finch, took the Queen to see some new buildings, and I escorted Prince Philip to inspect a display of work by staff. He treated them as equals, interrogating the meaning of graphs, demanding to know the evidence for their conclusions.  Aggressive, but in the way that academics are to each other.

Then I walked him down to our main hall.  ‘Has the campus ever been planned?’ he asked me.  I told him that not initially, but a master-plan was developed in 1962.  ‘Are its results showing yet?’ he asked (this was now four decades later).  Fair question if you know the Keele campus.

We entered the hall, in which were gathered a hundred local dignitaries, standing around in groups of ten.  We had arrived before the Queen, but Philip suggested we tour the room without her.  I had a crib sheet and introduced him to each individual in turn.  ‘This is Mr. Blenkinsop of Allied Ball Bearings, this is Mr. Greatbach of the Greatbach Pottery …’. When we got to the end, the Queen appeared, and Philip said he would show her round, leaving the crib sheet with me.  He introduced the Queen to Mr. Blenkinsop and every subsequent person, without missing a name.  I was astonished at this feat of memory in a man who was by then well into his seventies.  ‘How did you do that?’ I asked him.  ‘Ties’ he said.  ‘I remember each tie and the name and activity attached to it.’

I think now, as I thought then, that this was a display of professional competence of a high order.  A little like that shown by nurses and doctors and social workers and teachers as they go about their business in the coronavirus crisis.  Quite unlike that displayed by our political leaders, the product of a democratic system which we thought was a better form of government than royalty.

And I say that as a life-long republican.

Dickens and Sundays, note 1.

The Guardian, as it happened, ran a piece by Peter Fiennes the day after mine, on Dickens and Little Dorrit and the lockdown.  It broadened out into a discussion of his way of life at the time, with the beginning of his public readings, a walking tour of the Lake District, his constant pacing of the London streets.  ‘Dickens of 1857’, it concludes, ‘would have had trouble enduring the lockdown.’

Dickens and Sundays, note 2

It was reported in the Times on Saturday Boris Johnson ‘is facing a cabinet backlash over plans to suspend Sunday trading laws after three ministers, including the chief whip, warned against it.’  Another of those three was the nanny-raised Jacob Rees-Mogg, in his capacity as Leader of the House of Commons.