My family got off lightly through both World Wars. My grandfather was apparently conscripted when he turned 18, in the late spring of 1917. The family story is that he fought in the trenches at one of the big battles, probably Paschendaele or Ypres, but I can’t find any mention of him in the Forces Records. Whatever his experiences, like so many men of his generation, he never talked about them. Not once. During the Second World War he was deemed to be in a protected profession, being a tax inspector, and was packed off with his family to North West Wales – an experience my Dad hated.
When Remembrance Day comes around, I always end up thinking of my Granddad. When researching some family history many years back, someone contacted me – “are you Arthur’s granddaughter?”, “yes”, “was he the Arthur who played the violin?”, “yes”, “he was a lovely man, very musical, very gentle, very artistic”. And he was – all three.
I remember going with my Dad and him to a shop in Sussex where we bought a quarter-size violin for me. I still have it in the corner of the room I’m writing this in. He knew about violins, and this one has a lovely tone. Someone who can play looked at it a few years ago, and made some beautiful sounds come out from it, very unlike the raw scrapings I ever managed to attain.
I remember a wonderful history book he had, which had big pictures on one of the double-page spreads, and a related story on the other side. I remember lying on his sitting room floor, leafing through the pages again and again and again. I still have some of his more grown-up history books, themselves a relic of history now – one of them finishing at Waterloo with an addendum about the Victorian age. I don’t know what happened to the book from my childhood.
I remember his studio in his long, rambling Sussex home. He loved to paint. The smallish room with loads of red Oxo tin boxes, each of which had some specific assortment of utilities in them, with half-finished paintings resting along a wall and a big bench across the middle. We still have some of his paintings on our wall. He understood how to do trees. Painting was a regular activity on my trips to his home.
I remember him sitting, half asleep, in his armchair, cigarette magically attached to his bottom lip, with the test match on the television, but listening to the radio commentary. He always seemed to be dressed in brown. “Poor old crock” he would say as he got up – either that or “’ere we go, said the earwig as he fell of the cliff”. Cricket became a magical game.
I remember he and my Dad making a swing at the bottom of Granddad’s long Sussex garden, right next to the nettles – which I don’t remember quite so lovingly. I remember him loving his garden. And I can remember going to bed there and listening to the most amazing music that he and my grandmother would play.
I don’t ever remember him as angry, or violent, or hurried. I can’t imagine him as a soldier. Remembrance Day becomes, for me, a day to remember how easy it is to make monsters out of men – quiet, gentle men like my grandfather.
And it makes me sad too – because my own children haven’t had that kind of relationship with my own father. His love of making things (especially aeroplanes), art, music, political debate – all of that was lost to them – sad not because he wasn’t around, but because he is around, but chose to break contact when I transitioned. A small act of conflict which does what conflict always does – leaves people poorer.