Thursday, October 9, 2008

show and tell and war

The concept of show-and-tell sessions at school, although relatively new in the UK, is familiar to me; my Mum worked as, among other things, a secretary in a school attached to a Catholic church in New York in the early '60's. So, when Minima came home and told us her history class was putting on a form of show and tell for older kids, I knew the sort of thing she meant.

Her class was tasked with tracing their family trees, finding out where times of their predecessor's lives intersected with history, and bringing in some sort of artefact connected with one such crux.

I had no hesition and gave her a battered tin of my mother's, which contained most of what we have left of my Grandad, and told her about the contents.

There are two cap badges in it, one of which is from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. This was, however, his second regiment. The batallion of his first (the other cap badge, I think, is from the Highland Light Infantry), I've learnt at my mother's knee, was wiped out in France, and he stayed in the ASH when the survivors were brought within their fold.

First things first: he lied about his age to join the army and escape his job at the Parkhead Forge in Glasgow. Exploitative child labour in Great Britain had been attacked from all points on the political spectrum since the mid-1800's, but a coalition of distant managers, unprincipled gaffers and negligent parents conspired in to keep it going in some outfits for longer than is generally recognised in the history books.

Another precious reminder of him is a decaying photograph of a proud young sergeant taken not too long before the start of the Great War, which was far too fragile to entrust to Minima's enthusiastic mercies. It was as a sergeant that Grandad, Jim, first became empowered. A junior officer not long out of training school had come to his barracks, and soon picked up that if a soldier came to the Sergeant for a chit requiring a form to be filled in, Jim would make the soldier write what had to be entered on the form on the blackboard in the office. When asked why, he'd reply "I've got to check you's can all read an' write!"

It didn't take the officer long to click that Jim was functionally illiterate, and was simply copying the squiggles on the blackboard onto the forms, so he had Jim sent onto a literacy course. It was the making of him.

During the crucible of the Great War which made some men, broke others and rendered yet more silent on the subject until their deaths, Jim was able to use his own knowledge to "look after" the officer. In the Gallipoli campaign, for example, he advised the officer to order soldiers to pick up their comrades' corpses and put them on their backs. Turkish machine-guns were ahead of them, but some of the Allied ships behind were aiming their gunfire too low.

After the war, the two men never met again. But the officer - I wish I knew his name - never forgot his first Sergeant, and went to his funeral in the mid-50's.

Meanwhile, during the Second World War, Jim was too old to go abroad. But he played an important role training troops in Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, which also acted as a receiving point for deserters. He would retrieve deserters from all over Scotland, and take them to his home for a bowl of soup before he handed them over to Maryhill: during WWI, he'd been one of the NCO's to realise that a conscript who had, for whatever reason, passed a certain point of panic was a liability, and had colluded in shooting off toes or trigger fingers.

Grandad had to sell most of his medals to collectors to get by, but couldn't bear to part with his WWI and WWII campaign medals. He was, however, especially proud of his Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders cap-badge, which is why I think my Mum was so protective of it. She said he was disappointed in those Scots, predominantly Glaswegians, who mispronounced the name of the regiment as "Argyll and Southern Highlanders". It betrays geographical ignorance of colossal proportions - Sutherland is the northernmost part of Scotland, so-called because to the Vikings it was the land to the south.

Although war-wounded to a degree that at times disabled him, Jim was refused help because in his more robust days he'd been a political agitator for an ideology that seems now to be de rigeur in Europe. But he was no ideologue: the memories of staying up all nights to protect eight newborns - three of whom survived to their teens - from rats left him angry. He was a member of the Independent Labour Party, but wasn't able to contribute many ideas because he couldn't afford the fees to make it to their summer schools. I thank God that shortly before he died he saw his first grandchild - my cousin.

I also thank God that he died before people of his own political persuasion capitulated to the ambivalence that left-wingers now feel about patriotism. It's obviously good that the Government has moved to protect the savings and the aspirations of people who invested their money in banks that appeared to be safe. But where was that support when British solders were being killed and injured because their vehicles were not up to the standard required to protect those inside them from landmines?

US spending for the welfare of veterans was $33 billion in 2006. I am unable to find the equivalent UK figure.

Rest in peace, Jim. I pray that you and my Mum are waiting for me so that we can have a ding-dong of epic proportions.

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