Three doors down: a moment to take stock

Our next door neighbour:

Today was a fine English day. Our neighbour held a garden party to celebrate her birthday. Pretty bunting, loosely tied bouquets of old fashioned roses and bowls of strawberries welcomed the guests into a neatly clipped garden. It was warm and sunny (which I might say isn’t very English) and the Pimms quickly went to work on everyone’s head. The odd guest popped inside to check progress at Wimbledon, but otherwise, everyone sat contentedly and enjoyed the the green and pleasant land.

The chap two doors down:

I sat next to a clever, retired police officer at lunch (I know him well, but hadn’t seen him for some time, so it was a good chance to catch up). He’s recently published a book about the fate of the many servicemen from our little town. He’s a great source of information and his bright detective’s memory holds on to all the detail (‘talk to Chris…he can really find his way around an archive and knows everything about Naval matters…Did you know that there’s a fellow down at Rochford with a VC? He was 16 years old and didn’t leave his post…Old Ron, such a gentleman. He used to carry Prue’s Bible to church for her. Who would have thought that he was one of 2,000 (of the 8,000 that went in) who came out of Arnhem alive.) I admire him, because he was able to discover and record new things and had the dedication to fulfill his work in a fully published book (albeit published himself). “How’s your work going?” he asked. “Well, all I’m doing is reading what other people have written… I haven’t actually found anything out yet.” Which then made me wonder- was I tying to find something out? I think I’ve lost track. I guess the point is to discover what happened to Grandpa, but I think there will be very little find. I was pondering this problem when he tapped my arm “Hey- didn’t you say you’d flown a Harvard? You should talk to Peter here- he trained on them.”

Three doors down:

Peter is an elegant man, with a soft voice and beautiful manners. He and his wife have retired to the imposing red brick house three doors down. They once lived in a country estate, but as they were in their 80s, they figured it was time to relocate to something more manageable.

He has an exquisite charm and brightness that puts you at ease and encourages conversation. I’m not exactly sure how he started, but he explained that in 1945, he was stationed  in Africa, where he was training to be a pilot. He trained on the Harvard, and was trying to remember whether they had canvas wings. He considered it wistfully and asked about Grandpa. I told him that he flew Wellingtons. “Oh yes, Wellingtons. They liked to fly them, because they could be shot to pieces, but still fly. They had a clever design.” (I wanted to pipe up with ‘geodetic’ but it felt a little silly to cut in). He was then trying to remember a particular aircraft that began with H and I chimed in with ‘Halifax’- which was clearly wrong. The neigbour two doors down helpfully contributed ‘Hampden’, which was the right answer. I felt a bit sheepish for randomly guessing at planes and thought I better remember that for the future- don’t guess at an answer. I’m sure it didn’t matter, but I still wanted to kick myself.

He then looked very quizzical. “It’s funny that you are interested in this. It’s not worth remembering. Such awful things happened. I think of some things… like the Americans in South East Asia. The Battle of the Coral Sea. Flame throwers. They destroyed the Japanese that they came across. Burned them to death and all manner of terrible things. Well, they had to. But who wants to remember that?” He paused and fidgeted with his cuffs (despite the heat, he was wearing a perfectly ironed button-down shirt).” I lost my brother in the RAF”. His hands started to tremble. Neighbour number two jumped in: “Now it’s not about glorifying anything. It’s making sure that history books don’t get rewritten and that important things don’t get forgotten.” He looked unconvinced and said quietly “I don’t know how this came up. I really don’t care to talk about it.” I looked at him helplessly and said “I’m not expecting to find anything heroic or happy- I just want to know more about what happened to my Grandpa.” “It’s just curious to me” he said “that someone your age is bothered with any of this.” And that was the end of the conversation.

Sigh. It does leave me uncertain. I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. The log book should arrive with me this week and perhaps looking at it will tell me whether to go on, or whether to quietly leave this alone.

Far more alarming is that I am interviewing an author on Tuesday who has written over 20 books on the Battle of Britain. Good grief. I need to tread a careful line here- thoughtful and interested, but don’t repeat today’s mistake of jumping in with the wrong aircraft. I do have a habit of saying foolish things when I get nervous. I asked the chaps in my office whether they thought that I could get through the interview without being stupid. They both smiled and answered ‘No’. Oh dear. That’s the next hurdle then- get through Tuesday in one piece.




2 responses to “Three doors down: a moment to take stock

  • Amy Scott

    Oh my goodnes…you are so far from ever being stupid. The Halifax was a good guess. I think you need to step back and consider your achievements from a bit more of a distanced perspective. You have read more, listened more, considered more than you even realize. You have a scholar’s mind and you apply that to absolutely every task you undertake. No one could fail to see that. I hate to be rude, but the fellow three doors down sounded rather mean. I can understand that he didn’t want to talk about details but he could have been polite about it. You asked about it all because the fellow two doors down suggested it. You would never have pried into matters if you sensed someone was reluctant. And to suggest that it is pointless or wrong for a person our age to ask about these matters is puzzling to me. Is it bad taste for me to suggest that he is wrong? I guess you can’t be right or wrong about these things, but to discourage someone from learning about the past is as close to wrong as I think you can get. I don’t think it is ever wise to choose not to learn about the past.

    We are still ourselves sorting through why we are doing this. But this gentleman was not privy to the deep feelings we have about our father and the ways that any knowledge we gather about war history honours our father’s interests. The war was obviously deeply personal to Peter. Too personal for him to share. Your search for knowledge is also deeply personal. We don’t come from a position of voyeurism or morbid fascination. We come from a place of sincere desire to learn and to honour our father and grandfather. I respect Peter’s wish to remain silent. I do not respect his discouragement of you. Keep faith that your search is meaningful and valuable. It is valuable to me, at the very very least. Do not leave this search alone…go where it will take you. You do not have to know what the precise reason is, at this moment. And you do not have to come to some vast, profound enlightenment either. I think the greatest achievements are those that unravel slowly and carry a sense of uncertainty. What would be the point of any intellectual endeavour if we were certain of the outcome? I look at my own dissertation proposal and dissertation. The proposal and dissertation were two very different animals. But I needed that proposal to start the journey. The final project only emerged as I wrote. You can only plan and predict so much. The rest comes into being as the hard work of reading, writing and thinking slowly goes on.

  • Angels 14

    Thanks for the encouraging words. You are right- there doesn’t need to be an exact purpose. Whatever the reason is, I am completely driven at the moment. I’ll forget about trying to figure out why and just let the interest drive itself.
    Apologies for painting Peter as a jerk- that’s just bad writing on my part. He was a lovely, lovely man. He was just sad and perplexed- I don’t think he was trying to stop me or make me feel (I was making myself feel bad).

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