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 Shannon in Florida, USA: life seems relatively normal …

April 28. I must say given how crazy the things have been and how cumbersome (putting it mildly) all restrictions have been for most people around the world, my life seems relatively normal. 

I am lucky to be working as a consultant, which means working from home is not new or far fetched. Yes, you are in meetings starting at 8 and ending around 18, and you are lucky if you can close your computer and enjoy dinner before 20, but still this is better than most. Usually for work I am traveling Monday – Thursday to be on client site,  which means I don’t get to spend as much time with family, or pets, but now things are different. My schedule has adapted, and I am not complaining in the slightest. I get to take my pets on a long walk on the morning and the evening, see my mom and dad, and workout from home. I don’t have to think about missing a flight, or what I am ordering for room service because I can’t be bothered to leave the hotel after a long day at work.

I am in Florida where people seem to care more about their tan, beer, and “freedom” than anyone else, which may play a part. Beaches are open, people have quarantine parties, and everyone seems to think this is all just a big vacation. I would normally be frustrated that peoples ignorance will just prolong the situation, but I would just be in a bad mood all day if I thought that way. SO instead of being upset that my travels are cancelled, that my boyfriend is on the other side of the world, and that people seem to not care about anyone but themselves I am choosing to see positives. 

I am spending more time with my parents than I have since I was about 8, I get to walk outside on an empty golf course with two extremely happy dogs, the sun is shining, I have a job, and I know eventually things will go back to normal. 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”

20 April.  My wife and I keep in touch with our London-based family through Zoom and Skype: a get-together of the entire tribe at 4 on Sundays, bi-laterals with each of our three children and the grandchildren at intervals during the week.  In one of these, my second daughter, having gone through all the projects she had undertaken with her two young, now unschooled, children, and described her re-entry into home-based work after three weeks of inactivity, turned the conversation back to her parents:

“So, what have you two been doing?”  We both of us realised that we really had no answer to that question.

Our days had not been empty.  We had gardened, cooked, shopped online.   I had sat at my desk writing odd pieces and collecting material for books which may never be written.  Thanks to the discovery of sites such as Curzon Films, and, in particular, MUBI, we had watched an increasing range of art-house films late at night – our physical art-house, The Old Market Hall, a seventeenth-century building in the town square, skilfully converted into an compact cinema, with an adjacent café to supply food and drink, is like all public entertainment, firmly closed.  

But we had not really done anything worth reporting.  Nothing to change our circumstances.  Nothing to impact upon the world and its suffering.

It is of course otherwise with those, who include my children and their spouses, who are at home but still pursuing their careers.  And with those who are using their enforced idleness to undertake useful voluntary work.  But for those of us who are both retired and locked down, each day just follows another. 

We no longer have plans with outcomes.  There are occasional disjunctions, but for the most part action has been replaced by ritual and routine.   In our household, as in much of British culture, these are largely secular and private.  Unlike the celebrations so vividly described by Nike in Katerini, Easter has never passed so unremarked as it did with us.  The upcoming May Bank Holidays have no meaning.  Nor do the summer holidays beyond them.  The Queen will have no guns firing for her birthday.  

Now we focus attention on the weekly round of Zoom conversations.  In the early evening we take a turn round the adjacent field, circling a flock of mildly curious sheep.  Within each day my wife and I not only eat together but make a particular point of meeting at the coffee and tea breaks which punctuate our particular labours.  Two public rituals have been introduced.  The first is the daily press conference given by some hapless minister.  The second is the Thursday 8 p.m. public applause for the front-line workers, which is partly a genuine show of gratitude, and partly a demonstration that we remain connected members of a larger society. 

 “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” wrote J Alfred Prufrock (as it happens in the middle of the national crisis of the First World War).  So, for the time being, with us.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Dark Thoughts …

I’ve been having dark thoughts. So dark I’m not sure I should express them. Greece is going to remain in full lockdown for the remainder of April and most likely till early May. We’ve been in Greece over six months now. We come often, we being my parents and I. Every year my father announces he wants to die in Greece so every year we come over spend half the year here, he doesn’t die, and we return to Australia until the next year.

Last year my father fell so ill I didn’t think we’d make it over in time. His doctors all said don’t bring him to us any more, there’s nothing further we can do. It was okay – I wasn’t even sad. The man is 92 years old and riddled with disease and chronic conditions. He’s lived a big life, seen children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. There’s nothing to mourn, indeed it should be a celebration to have lived like that.

The flight over from Australia was horrendous. That long haul never gets any easier no matter how many times you do it. During half of the flight my father kept yelling how dreadful this cinema is and he kept trying to leave. I spent most of the flight restraining him from trying to open the exit door. A couple of the burlier gentlemen on board kindly helped me out a few times. Dad then lapsed into a semi-coma. I genuinely believed he was going to die on that flight and I was absolutely okay with it because we would be landing soon – in Greece. But, we made it to our home and then he bounced back again.

A month after that again he seem to be at death’s door. Another recovery. He fell over on the pavement outside on the road after a dog scared him. He was startled by its loud barking, fell over backwards and cracked his head. I thought he was going to bleed to death right there on the road. He bounced back. That man has been hunted by Nazis, attacked by communist guerrillas, been accidentally electrocuted, escaped a house fire, had two heart attacks, bypass surgery, a stroke, stroke surgery, been in heart failure twice plus myriad other operations, illnesses and incidents and has myelodysplasia, a rare blood cancer. He doesn’t know he has it. Why tell him?

There are days he just stops eating. He’s been talking to people for the last seven or eight months. There’s no one there but he’s having a spirited conversation. I can hear him when he has his afternoon siesta. He is welcoming someone in. ‘Hello, hello, come in and sit down how have you been?’ This is happening every day.

I’ve read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Keep the environment serene, calm and loving so their passing can be serene too. All very nice advice but it neglects to mention the one who is doing all this for them, how do they stay serene?

He’s in a bad way. He can’t walk, except to shuffle between rooms. He demands a fat juicy steak every day which I supply and he takes maybe half a bite and leaves the rest then demands a fresh one the next day. It took my boy (son) more than 20 days to start to feel somewhere near normal after his battle with COVID-19. It’s a terrible thing to begin to resent someone just for being alive. I came to bury my father yet he’s ordering juicy steaks while my son was battling for breath. Let the dead bury the dead, said Jesus. Am I dead? I must be because I certainly don’t feel alive.

Ritual saves me from my own thoughts. It’s Greek Orthodox Easter. The rituals of Easter are many and mostly to do with food. Ritual and it’s related foods offers the refuge from the surreal. During Holy Week one favourite food is octopus. I see a good large specimen at my regular fishmonger but decide to walk further down the street to see what another fishmonger has in stock. Right in front there’s a case full of smaller cephalopods. One glance reveals to me they are not the true octopus. Every fishmonger warns of buying the small ones with only one row of suckers on their short tentacles. ‘Don’t buy those!’ they warn. ‘They’re not as tasty and they take too much work to prepare. It’s not worth it.’
They’re called musk octopus and they’re 6€ a kilo. The big fellow up the street is 10€ a kilo. I already know that even though it’s almost double the price it will be five times as good so I turn my back on the musky ones and go back to buy the real one with long fat tentacles and double rows of suckers. It’s also the day of Lazarus. The Lazarinas can’t sing and dance
so Greek Facebook accounts are flooded with videos of past Saturdays of Lazarus. The Lazarinas are young women dressed in flower festooned traditional costumes to symbolise the double meaning, that of Spring, the rebirth of the Earth, and the rebirth of a man who had just died.

The Lazarinas fast in the lead up to their dance to be performed in the churchyards. My mother was a Lazarina when she was a girl. She said they could only break their fast for the duration of the pealing of the church bells before the call to come to church. She said the bell-ringers would draw out the chimes to last for many, many minutes to allow for extra mouthfuls of food.

On the way home to cook the octopus I passed one of the many greengrocers. The lady proprietor is named Margarita. She calls out to me, ‘How is your son?’
‘He is well!’ I surprise myself by repeating. It must still be reverberating in my heart. ‘He is well!’
She nods at me with a satisfied look on her face. ‘Of course he is. I prayed for him and I lit a candle for him.’

I left her smiling allowing her to believe she held sole responsibility for his healing. My little outing was beneficial. Grecian sunshine is kissing my cheek, my son is well. I feel alive again.