Remembering isn't enough ...
My paternal grandfather fought in World War I. He lost a leg. My dad, a lifelong story teller, spoke, and wrote (in his own unpublished memoir), about his father a lot. I know that Clement Thornton was ‘a strong reliable man, with a deep streak of persistency’. I know that despite the lost leg he walked without a stick and removed his leg to decorate, hopping along a plank between two ladders. I know that, against the advice of his extended family, he raised his son, my father - Ronald (Ron) - alone following the death of my dad’s mother Violet:
Shortly after my sixth birthday my mother died of pneumonia, leaving my father with a decision to be made.
We lived in a rented house and each day my father travelled eight miles to work and eight miles back again in the evening. Work was difficult to come by in 1929, and once obtained had to be performed diligently and attended regularly in order to be kept. It was necessary that he leave the house at six o’clock each morning in order to reach his place of work on time, and not return until eight o’clock in the evening. How was he to raise a six-year-old boy under these circumstances? Many well-meaning people advised him to give up his son to foster parents, or to deposit him in a suitable Home and contribute to his upkeep. . . . he decided that we stay together in the same house and manage as best we were able.
Thus we began a life together that was to last for a further twenty-five years. (Thornton unpublished, Beginning: 1-2)
I could go on.
What I don’t know much of though is my grandfather’s wartime experience which leads me to assume that my dad knew little of this also. That it was too difficult, too upsetting, to talk about doesn’t seem an unreasonable conclusion to reach.
I know more about my dad’s own wartime experiences. Aged 16 when World War II began he served for some time in the Home Guard before being called up by the army. He had previously tried to sign up for the RAF but was considered ‘unfit’. I can’t remember why but wonder if it was the squint in his eye that was fixed at a military hospital before he was sent overseas. The bandage on his head and the hospital blues (uniform) attracted some attention and some gifted cigarettes, when it was assumed that he had been injured in action. My dad’s war stories (to me at least) were mostly about the people he met and the places he travelled. He wrote about some of these too. Here is an extract from a poem pasted on the inside flyer of one of the carefully presented photograph album (complete with captions for each image) depicting his travels and experiences:
Land of enchantment, spices and fruit,
Land where no soldier could ever take root.
Ivory turquoise, jewel and gold,
Faces of children so haggard and old.
Parsee, Punjab, Gurkha and Sikh,
Women so strong and men so weak.
Monument, Shrine, Temple and Palace,
Filthy hovel and treatment so callous. ….
Torrential rains of which you have read,
that flood the village and wash up the dead.
Of his comrades my dad wrote:
Living together in such close proximity and under the conditions peculiar to the services brings a man to a greater sympathetic understanding of his fellow being than it is probably able to achieve at any other time in his life. There is a companionship between men that is to be found in no other situation. But it is a companionship between men of like kind, of men of the lower ranks of which I was part. There is no similar relationship at all between men of different ranks, except the ever-present relationship that exists between those in authority and those who suffer authority. (Thornton, unpublished, Beginning: 17)
I read (for the first time) my father’s memoir (typed but covered with hand written additions and crossings out) in the few days following his early death, aged 55, in 1979. Although my parents talked to me about anything and everything I learnt a lot through my reading about my father’s own insecurities and achievements. I was comforted too, as his deep love for my mother – Dorothy – and for me, his only child, shone off the page. It was years later, following a couple of university degrees and years of continued study as lecturer/learner, before I re-read this words and this time around I was struck by this sociological understanding and his empathy for others.
This month, inevitably, there has been much discussion of remembrance, and many stories have been shared. To these I have added here some of my own; not forgetting my maternal grandfather who was a seaman in World War I and served again on the Liverpool streets at night during the air-raids of World War II. This month too, there has been much discussion of the best way to remember, to honour, those who have served, and again and again the issue of poor mental health and of homelessness amongst veterans has arisen.
I welcome these discussions. It is important, I think, that as part of any remembrance activity we reflect on the whole complex picture and on what there is we still need to do, indeed what we must do. Over the last couple of years I have added a little to the debate in this area. I have written about how winter and summer homelessness each bring their own trials and I have written ‘fictional’ pieces for this site (Remember, Remember and Poppy https://www.abctales.com/story/gletherby/poppy) focusing on veteran homelessness and the relationship between this and remembrance and patriotism. This year in additional to the telling of stories about some of my own men folk I’d like to also share a personal story from a couple of weeks ago. I live in Cornwall and so a trip to the Eden Project is a local treat. My most recent visit was with some of my ‘friends as family’ nearest and dearest. After a fun day of listening to stories and face painting alongside walks amongst the flora and fauna and on our way to catch the bus to the ‘park and ride’ we passed a poster advertising for the fifth year running a ‘Sleep Out’ outside the Biomes (domes) on Thursday 15 November 2018, to help support young homeless people across the country. ‘Sleep Out’ is a national event and last year more than 3,000 supporters slept out in 17 locations across the country, raising more than £1.2 million. https://www.edenproject.com/visit/whats-on/eden-sleep-out. Underneath the poster was a sculpture of a man sleeping on a bench, his shoeless feet sticking out of the dirty blanket covering him. Four year old Charlotte (not her real name), with whom I was holding hands, stopped walking, looked at the man (I’m still not sure if she thought it was a live person or not, but no matter because the statue represents many, many actual, real, living, people) then looked up at me and said: ‘That man is sleeping on a bench’. ‘Yes, I said he’s sleeping there because he doesn’t have a home to live in,’ I replied. ‘Ahhh’, Charlotte said quietly, solemnly, lingering a little longer to look.
I am currently planning a ‘do 12 things (one each month) you have never done before’ to mark my 60th birthday in January. Homelessness is not completely new to me for as a child my parents and I spent more than a year living with, and being supported by, a series of friends (and one memorable night in a railway carriage) during a particularly lean period for our small family. In thinking of those that helped us; in remembering my grandfathers and my dad; in hoping for a better future for Charlotte’s generation; in solidarity with the families, the individuals, the young and not so young, the veterans, the low paid, the sick and more, and more, who are homeless now; in memory of those who have died whilst sleeping on the streets, I plan for one of my 12 things to be a fund raising sleep out. I am not the first to do this I know. It is not that huge a sacrifice given that I have a safe and warm home to return to. It is not that big a gesture given the great need that there is. But, it is something and I, and dare I say all of us, need to do something.
Thornton, Ronald (Unpublished) Memoir of a Life (Journeys and Changes ‘A Chronicle of Events)