Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Forgotten Stories

I was out for a few drinks with my wayward sister recently, and she told me an interesting story about my grandfather.

Jimmy, as he was known to everyone, died in August, after a long and notable life, surrounded by his family. He was simply the perfect grandfather. Living in a huge house on a hill, each weekend as children, my brother, sister and I, plus whatever friends might be around, would be taken up to visit him. Ever amiable, he would look gently bemused as we tore about the place, making all kinds of mess. He would never reproach us for anything, not as I recall, and visiting Jimmy meant for an afternoon of complete freedom, with sweets. It is one of the highights of my childhood, and that of a number of friends.

In this huge house of his, which he had owned for almost 60 years before selling it in 2004, were all kinds of rooms with all kinds of defunct functions. The pantry, for example, seemed only to hold food of 20 years ago. One person doesn’t strictly need two living rooms. The snooker room was good fun though, as was the “crazy” room – a room filled with spare furniture and nonsense, that allowed for all kinds of deconstruction and chaos. In these rooms, as you might imagine, was furniture and items decades old, as with the decor. Since his wife died young, a year after I was born in 1979, nothing had been changed. Not a conscious effort, you realise, more of an unconscious lack of effort. Why change anything? He was happy with his big old house, once full of family and children.

One of these ancient artefacts was a kind of chest of drawers in one of his living rooms. I remember this throughout my childhood, but never took any particular interest in it. The top section, as I can just recall, and as my sister reminded me, was just packed full of papers, for what I don’t know. The contents of the lower drawers never occurred to me.

But they did to my sister. One day, many years ago and surely when I’d stopped going to his on the weekends, she asked him what was in these drawers. He showed her. It was packed full of photos, old photos, many of his years serving in the war and the years after. If I know Grandpa, these photos would have been in absolutely no order whatsoever (I may have inherited this trait). My sister started looking through them, asking questions about what has going on in each. Jimmy would answer.

Very typical of that generation, Jimmy was not one to eulogise about himself or his past. Unlike today’s media generation, he had a natural reserve. But although he wouldn’t volunteer information about his past, he would always honestly answer as fully as required. He was a Major during the war, serving as a dentist in the Middle East, especially in Palestine/Israel. As I’ve travelled through there, latterly we would sometimes discuss some of the places we’d both been. He seemed to have quite enjoyed it, in the sense of finding it a terrifically interesting experience, in a way that is scarcely conceivable now.

Among the photos, my sister came across an oddity. Jimmy was ever amiable and seemingly ever unchanging. Every photo you’ve ever seen of him, unposed at any rate, is identical – tall and thin, he seems faintly bemused, and relaxed. Timeless, he barely seems to age; maybe the hair thins and some wrinkles appear, but he looks just the same, with the same expression, at home, at work, at war. Except this one photo. Wearing his military uniform, obviously somewhere in the Middle East, he looks stressed. My sister has never seen this expression in him before. “What’s happening here?” she asks, “Why do you look worried?” He tells her: “Oh, that was the day of my court martial.”

During the war, he had two bags. One was for his personal items and the other was for military, in particular his gun, which had to be guarded closely and kept in good working order. One day he had his military bag – his gun – stolen. How exactly this happened I don’t know, but it was regarded as a grevious failing in duty and responsibility, and a serious military offence. In fact, it could possibly be interpreted as one of six military offences then punishable by death! “Aiding the Enemy or Furnishing Supplies”, along with its five compatriots, was only formally abolished as punishable by death in 1998, but during the Second World War still occurred (although last officially occurred in 1942). The morning of the photo was the morning that, as far as my grandfather knew then, in a worst case scenario, might have him sentenced to death by firing squad! Hence this young man in his 20s was not feeling his usual self.

And so the day of this photo, the day of this serious court martial, what happened? Well, the day of his court martial, as it turned out, was the day of the Armistice! He went to his hearing and was told, “War’s over, you’re free.” We’ll never know what the verdict might have been, because Germany had surrendered and everybody could relax and go home.

In fact, it seems my grandfather stayed on a bit longer, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, and then soon after returning home, got a car and drove around war-torn Europe for several months. This was way before foreign travel became even remotely mainstream and was seriously adventurous for its day, and was something I only learnt about after his death. He eventually settled in the Highlands, becoming the first ever dentist for the region, and became a well known figure in the community. The rest – the family, the house, the golf and the whisky – is history, ending just a few months ago but leaving quite a legacy.

It’s curious, the things you don’t know about people you grow up with and take for granted, and with Grandpa I’m sure there’s a bit more. Fortunately, I think my uncle probably knows a fair bit, so I’ll question him next time I see him. With luck too, these old photos may be around too.

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