Things are dying. In the park I mean. It’s that time of the year when winter casts about it’s first cold, cruel and indifferent glances that say, Yes, I know the autumnal colours are pretty but I have a job to do.. But that’s okay, there’s still beauty in the dead and dying..
They Come Transfigured Back
Secure From Change in Their High-Hearted Ways
And With The Rays of Morn
On Their White Shields of Expectations.
This is the inscription by the entrance gates to of one of my favourite local spaces, Ealing’s Walpole Park, where today the most vivid colours on display are artificial ones. Those of the bleeding red and black-centred poppies of Remembrance.
The inscription is dedicated to those in the borough who died in the two world wars. I have walked past these words hundreds of times but have never read them before. I’m noticing things like this more these days. I recently saw another war tribute wall, at Liverpool St Station. I’ve walked past that without stopping to read, countless times too. But like I said, I’m noticing these things more now.
So, Remembrance Sunday is here, but I forgot. About the 2 minutes silence, I mean, not the entire thing. But I was on a tube by myself at the time, so I was being silent anyway. Maybe if my old man had been killed in the first world war then I would be more fastidious about these things, but he wasn’t killed, he was just wounded. No, I haven’t gotten my wars mixed up. It was during the First World War, in France, when he was wounded. But Mark, I hear you cry, you don’t look that old! I will explain. But first, another memory of another war memorial has just interrupted my train of thought..
It was 25 years ago, whilst I was working on a TV show, and I travelled with a crew, to the place then known as East Berlin. For there it was, in 1984, that I stood very small against the huge backdrop of one of the largest War Memorials in the world. Treptower Park. The Mother (Russia) of all War Memorials, you might say. An awesome place. Built to commemorate the 20,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. A breath-taking collection of massive sculptures and 16 sarcophagi, one for each of the Soviet Republics, and the final resting place for 5,000 members of the Red Army. I repeat, it looks awesome. And I mean that in the true sense of the word, not the casually dropped way that the adjective is now often used, to describe just about anything. I once heard someone receiving their change after buying some chewing gum. ”Thanks, that’s awesome!” Gah..Anyway I digress..
It’s 20 years ago this week since the Berlin Wall came down. The first thing that struck me, when I first clapped eyes on it, was the graffiti, which covered it in parts. MUFC Rule, sticks in my mind for some reason, as football slogans seemed so trivial and out of context in that setting. (”awesome!”). I also remember the unnerving border guards in their towers, and on cherry pickers, poised, machine guns at the ready, scanning the area for would-be wall climbers. Going through Checkpoint Charlie was a bit tense too. We had a quick drink first in the Café am Checkpoint, from which I took a napkin with the name printed on, but which I lost at some point over the years. Some of us got through fairly quickly, but the cameramen were detained, their equipment searched and meticulously picked over.
East Berlin. Architecturally it was looming, grey austerity as far as the eye could see. The buildings, serious and imposing, frowning slabs that said – none of your fancy western ways here. And the same message in the expressions of the military who seemed to be everywhere. At night it seemed other-worldly and eerily quiet. No shouting, no drunken revellers. We went in bars and talked to folk, some wished they live in the West, to be free of constraints and others thought the West corrupt. Some of these kids were there for the simple reason that on the night the wall went up, their grandparents hadn’t wanted to leave their furniture behind, so their families stayed put. And had subsequently had led very different lives to those of their neighbours who’d crossed over. It was a remarkable place, it really was. I recall the were department stores with window displays of fancy clothes and luggage, none of which was available inside, to buy. Just a showcase for Western visitors, we were told disparagingly by many locals.
In the middle of the city was a very tall building, the Press Centre, which looked like the old Telecom Tower in London. In the fat part was a revolving restaurant with sloping windows, and there it was one evening, that the young me sat drinking Soviet champagne whilst turning slowly around, 360 degrees aand staring out at the illuminated cityscape of East Berlin. One of the most starkly stunning sights I’ve ever seen. Like science fiction I thought, and no, it wasn’t the champagne talking. It really was proper awesome. I wasn’t into taking photos then. That’s’ fine. Sometimes memories are better..
Once back in the West, we went into a punk cellar bar, The Ratzkeller, where there was indeed, a young german punk with a live rat perched upon his shoulder. The celebrated would be pop-star and ex smackhead, child-prostitute of the day, Christiane F, sat in a corner with her entourage. The camera crew set up their equipment, the punks became aggressive, tried to knock a camera over. It was time to leave..
Did I prefer the Military watched-over grey civility of the East or the freewheeling, dangerous decadence of the West? As a visitor, the East was more memorable. But then I didn’t have to live there…
Back in Ealing. I was telling you about my dad, Corporal Harry Hurst of The Lancashire Fusiliers, who fought and was wounded in France in the first world war, aged 19. He was born in 1898, whilst Queen Victoria still reigned. He was 62 when I was born, my mum only 38. Nowadays we’re used to men, especially celebs and actors with their younger spouses, having kids late on in life. Seventy is the new Sixty, they say, but it wasn’t usual back then and I used to be embarrassed about having an old dad.
Odd to think that, at 15, my dad lied about his age to get into the army. When I was that age, I was lying about my age to get into the cinema to see the X-Certificate Way of The Dragon, with Bruce Lee. In ridiculously high platform boots and a bit of my sister’s mascara on my top lip. But I was fooling no one. My older mates got in and I went home to kung-fu the settee out of frustration and embarrassment.
Although getting on a bit when I was little, my father had not been some doddery old thing. No, he was a tall, broad shouldered, straight backed man with a shock of grey hair. He was hard as nails in fact. He was not the best of husbands by all accounts, and once whacked me with a slipper. My best memories of him are when we would watch Saturday afternoon wrestling on telly, then we would go at it ourselves, I would always be Mick Mcmanus. And at bedtime, he would getting chin pie. Chin pie was he called, the of rubbing his grey spiky stubble against my soft cheek. I loved that.
The problem with having kids when you are knocking on a bit, of course, is that there is less chance of you sticking around, and so it was that he died when I was just ten. The war spared him but the cancer didn’t. In those days, when there was a funeral in the community, friends and neighbours would line the street to watch the procession leave the house. I asked my mum if, when we went outside, could she try not to cry, because it would show me up. Kids eh? They deal with death in a different ways. No sobbing and flinging theirselves on the coffin. But I was only ten. I was just embarrassed, And she didn’t cry, my mum, or rather she probably did she hid it well, from me. My mum died at the same age as my dad, just before her 72nd birthday.
So, as I was saying, he was wounded in France, but at least he came back, not transfigured but disfigured. There are several war photos of my dad, they are all in a big tin at my sisters’ up North. One in particular I remember is a sepia tinted picture of him in a hospital for the wounded. His hand was badly damaged with several fingers missing. He used to tell me the story that he saw a German sniper so he gave him the V for Victory sign. The sniper was so good that he shot off one of dad’s fingers. So my dad reversed the sign, to mean eff off and the sniper shot off the other one! What really happened, he never said. It’s a cliché, but true, that most of them that came back didn’t talk about the war. Either too what they saw was too horrific and some were embarrassed because they hadn’t been in the thick of it. Or just guilty that they had survived. I have vague memories of some of the old soldiers in the local Queen’s Rd Social Club in Sheffield, where my dad would take us. One of the old boys might mention something about the war and they’d all sigh and look away, and someone would change the subject. I was reminded of them, years later, during The League Of Gentlemen comedy series. The butcher character, Hilary Briss, if someone mentioned ‘the special stuff’, he would give them that look that said, ‘not now, this is not the time nor the place..’
I don’t know why, given my heritage, that I wasn’t more interested in the great wars, as a young man, but there you go. I’ve been always anti-war and not into anything military at all apart from some of the obvious stuff, like Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong and, like everyone else, I was gobsmacked by the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan.Then a few months ago, I visited, for the first time ever, the Imperial War Museum. And I found myself returning to the Trench Experience a couple of times, despite my son’s protestations that we’d seen it already, and he wanted to eat. But I wanted to linger. To try and experience something, anything of what my dad might have felt and heard, and smelt..
Maybe they should have a themed restaurant at the museum, that serves wartime ration food. Or a Chinese Restaurant, called Dim Somme..
Back in Ealing. At the park gates, I take some pictures of the war tributes, the little wooden crosses and wreathes of red. I think of my dad, born in 1898 and my son, born 100 years later, in 1998. They never knew each other. Me in the middle. The connect. I can’t wait to see the boy tomorrow. Maybe I won’t shave so I can give him the hereditary chin pie. Maybe, we’ll wrestle a little. He likes wrestling, Or maybe he will play Call of Duty war games on his Xbox…
I think of my nephew, going out to Afghanistan for the first time soon. Bomb Disposal. The family are all worried and we hope and wish that he will come back in one piece, transfigured or not. I look away from the park gates. Away. I go, transported back..
I am sitting on my dad’s knee, my small hand in his disfigured one. I’m playing with the stump of his finger, tickling it, liking the feel. I raise my head up to his, he lowers his to mine and I feel the tough, grey bristles scraping against my soft pale cheek. It feels nice. Chin pie. I climb on to his back, my arms around his broad shoulders, ready to wrestle. I am inches from the already malignant and growing cells, slowly mutating in his lungs, that will eventually take him from me. We play-fight and I squeal because he presses too hard sometimes. He doesn’t mean to. Then mum walks past, paying us no mind, and I call out to her. Mum.. She looks over. Look mum, I say, It’s alright. It’s alright to cry now. I’m..
I’m not embarrassed anymore.