It’s exciting when you receive a parcel.
When it arrived last Tuesday I recognised it immediately. Retrieved from a drawer and kindly sent on by my cousin, our grandfather’s medals, from the First World War.
He had two of them. They are quite tarnished now, with their ribbons. He’d obviously worn both because they have rusting safety pins, touchingly held in place with the sort of stitches that only a bloke would do. I can see him with his pals from the Pit or the Lodge or the Club, standing to attention on Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day. A strong, stocky man; muscled like the blacksmith he was with big, calloused hands. Quiet, often busy with his pipe, that old rolltop desk forever imbued with the rich aroma of his smoke.
I think it was the dark eyebrows under white hair that terrified me at three or four, or that alien smell, his silence or his size. Offered the chance to take me out in my pram I gather he declined; perhaps it wasn’t what Grandads did in those days. I’m sure that in my infant sensibility I’d have been relieved.
It would have been good to have known him better. Perhaps I could have seen him at work in all the heat and noise of his forge? Enthralled and excited as a boy he could have told me what it was really like to go from handling horses on the Somme to repairing the spanking new technology, the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps. Or about the doomed young men who lost their lives in the skies or the mud all around him.
Who knows ? If my Grandad had hung on for a while longer he could have taken me for my first pint, enrolled me in the Bank House Club. We might have got on.
I don’t think that I’d have ever dared to ask him about my Grandma’s story of the day that he came home in tears with threepence, representing a whole week’s wage from Newbiggin Colliery. Or of what the short time of the 1920s, or the coal owners could do to a brave, strong man.
If he’d have allowed me it would have been good to look at his medals with him. I’d have asked him about the inscription ‘The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919’ and about what it really meant. Of what sort of civilisation that Great War and its 1919 Treaty of Versailles had created.
Away at war, I wonder how my Grandad heard of the birth of my father, to his wife, aged only 19. A mere 25 years later what did he make of that precious first child, the first in the family to go to Durham University, being called up for the Second World War? All those hopes invested in his son, all that knowledge of what he might have to face.
I know what my Dad eventually thought about it all. I have his medals too, four of them. Double the medals, almost twice the length of service. He travelled much further with the British Army - to Germany as well as France and then on to Palestine. There’s a contrast too, in the way they gleam, the medal ribbons unattached. They’ve never been worn.
My father tried to put the Second World War behind him when he came home, his ‘bit’ done to teach history at Bedlington Grammar School. Dad’s medals stayed in their original wrapping, never willingly remarked, untouched until we searched them out, long after he had died.
There’s a story which may echo with others. The kind man who never spoke about the War
On the 11th of November at 11am, as usual, I will stand silent for a moment and think of my Grandad and my Dad, who were both so lucky to survive, of all those who never came home from France, Germany, Palestine more recently Iraq and Afghanistan. I will think of all the civilians, especially all the children who have died.
Ignoring the Party Whip, always acting according to my own conscience I have voted both for and against sending other people’s sons and daughters, grandchildren to war. Ultimately, democracy and diplomacy, the great institutions of United Nations, European Union, European Convention on Human Rights are the antidote to conflict but if we are to take a principled role in the world we need armed forces of which we can be proud. We need to support brave women and men very well when they come home.
We should also nurture those democratic systems with such responsibility to uphold, equip and deploy our armed forces. There is no logic in wearing a poppy and not voting, in sending people across the world to risk their lives for democracy yet undermining it here, in winning a world war and then losing the peace.
If we don’t like our politicians we can change them. However, if we’re too cynical or idle to engage with democracy we might as well forget those old medals rattling around a dusty drawer.