The thankful ones

memorial

Is there any place in Australia which does not have a war memorial?

No matter how small the town, you always see a reminder of those who left to fight for the British Empire in 1914-18 and never came home again. Teenage boys mostly, who had rarely travelled more than a day’s ride from home, they died on the other side of the planet, in France, Turkey, or the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Their names are engraved in countless plaques on the walls of Soldiers’ Memorial Halls, town halls and post offices, or most often beneath the statue of a slouch-hatted soldier in order arms position, rifle resting on the ground and head bowed in respect.

Over 400,000 Australians volunteered to fight in the First World War, out of a population of just 4.4 million– almost a quarter of the entire male population. Of these, over 60,000 never returned. For Britain, with a population ten times greater, the number of casualties was a similarly high at 700,000. The UK too, of course, has a war memorial prominent in every town and parish. Yet of all the thousands of villages in Britain, there are a few dozen where there is no memorial. Remarkably, every soldier from those places returned home alive from the trenches.

They are known as the Thankful Villages.

One of these lies in the remote west of Wales, comfortably nestled between the mountains and the sea: a place called Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn, a farming community of rich dairy land clustered around a thirteenth century church. All around, black-and-white cows graze contentedly in tilting fields of deepest green. This is my father’s family home. I can confidently say that my family have lived here for hundreds, and almost certainly for thousands of years, working as farmers and blacksmiths – a specialty of the area. Over the years, they will have gone away to fight the Germans, the French, the Spanish, the French again, the Normans, and probably even the Romans. A dozen local men joined up in 1914 and left for the Front, serving as gunners, infantrymen, and drivers. Even the local vicar went to be a curate with the army in Mesopotamia. Every one of them came back alive, including three of my own family.

My great-uncle Silvan served in the fledgling Tanks Corps, manning a gun in one of those early metal monsters which lumbered across the no man’s land of the Somme. I remember him as a sprightly farmer in his seventies. On family visits, he rescued my brothers and me from the boredom of teatime conversation, beckoning us out with a wink to help with milking the cows. An hour later, we all returned streaked with milk, shoes caked in mud, and wide grins on our faces.

But not all the returned soldiers had grins, even those without bodily wounds. Growing up, we were all familiar with ‘Dai Trolley’. Every morning he walked from one end of the town to the other, pushing a trolley in front of him, turned to go back, then turned again and again until it was time to stop and go home for tea. Dai had suffered brain damage after a shell exploded near him during the allied landings in Italy. Walking all day at least kept him fit. His family knew where he was, and everyone in town kept an eye out for him. He even served as an impromptu courier service. If you wanted something delivered, you dropped it on the trolley, slipped a tip in his pocket, and phoned ahead to say, ‘Dai coming with those bulbs I promised you!’

And there was Uncle Peter too, a cousin of my mother. He had been in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. As children, we had heard about the camps, and talked in horrified whispers about the bamboo slivers pushed under fingernails and men crucified alive. It was almost scary to meet someone who had actually been a prisoner there. After tea with my aunt, we were taken to say hello to Uncle Peter. He spent his time in another room at the back of the house. The curtains were drawn and a coal fire burned there even on the warmest summer’s day. Here he sat, huddled by the fire, chain-smoking and staring into the flames. He tried to smile and talk to us, but his voice stuttered as he spoke and his hand never stopped trembling, sending cigarette ash tumbling over his waistcoat. His presence frightened me. In the decades since the war ended, he had rarely moved from the room. It was his safe place.

We don’t only remember the dead on Anzac Day then, but those who returned from the wars. They too paid a price which some have kept on paying.

Goodbye, Lotte Hass

lottie1

When I was young, the picture on our television screen was black-and-white. At the age of nine my whole world, it seemed was lived in shades of monochrome, if memory and old photographs are to be believed. But that was before Lotte Hass . . .

In the popular mythology of documentaries, 1960s London was a Paisley kaleidoscope of fashion, music, and drugs. You couldn’t look down the street without seeing a long-haired pop star and his mini-skirted girlfriend tumbling out of a Rolls Royce in a constellation of flashbulbs. There was no evidence of that in the quiet suburb on the Morden Line where my family lived. Well into that legendary decade, my father and our neighbours wore only suits and ties, with trilby hats upon their heads. As far as I knew, there were only two types of person: children like myself (the girls in dainty dresses), and grown-ups (the women all like my mother or the vicar’s wife, in tweed skirts and sensible shoes).

The compass of my world was small. To the east, the Tube station at the end of the road. To the north, my fifteen minute walk to school past the Common. To the west, a dubious area where I was forbidden to venture. There was a prison there, and a greyhound racing track. And to the south, a long road that led inevitably to Brighton, but only for two weeks every summer. On children’s television, Blue Peter was introduced by a woman dressed like my mother who showed us how to make toy robots out of cardboard toilet-roll tubes. Even on television, everything seemed to take place indoors, in studios mocked up to reflect a stuffy middle class living room.

Diving to Adventure! with Hans and Lotte Hass was different. A marine biologist and pioneer in underwater photography, Hass’ TV series was filmed in technicolor on location in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Pacific. Hans and Lottie had their own yacht, the Xarifa. They sailed where they liked then threw down the anchor. Diving carelessly overboard, they explored coral reefs, shipwrecks, and extraordinary creatures at the bottom of the sea. They were free and I envied that freedom. The underwater scenes were amazing. But most of all, I was captivated by Lotte. With flippers extending her long, strong legs, she moved through the water with the ease of a mermaid, hair flowing behind and seemingly without the need to breathe. I had never seen anything like it. It was not lust. It was not love. It was not aesthetic delight in the human form, for at the age of nine, one does not distinguish between these abstract concepts. It was all of them at once.  I was entranced.

The TV series became popular. The couple appeared on magazine covers. My favourite breakfast cereal (Malted Shreddies) had an underwater scene printed on the back of the box; inside the packet were plastic model figures of Hans and Lotte. I respectfully put Hans aside. I then washed the label from a jam jar, put a few pebbles and leaves of grass inside, then filled it with water and allowed Lottie to dive in. There she floated, gently bobbing around the little ocean I had created for her. I put it next to my bed and watched her as I fell asleep. I dreamed of Lotte swimming around my bedroom, exploring my books and toys, disappearing behind the curtains to reappear again with a smile, then curl up on the pillow beside me to rest.

But all things must change. Other heroes drew me on. Dan Dare. Thunderbirds and Lady Penelope. Dr Who. And then I discovered music and became a teenager. Lotte Hass, too, had other plans. She returned to her home, Vienna, and became a mother and a writer. I almost forgot about her for decades, then read by chance she had died a few weeks ago, in 2015. Curious, I looked for old film of her online and found some footage on YouTube. Yes, that was my Lotte . . .