As the date of my first Women’s Institute talk approached, I realised that it coincided with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It seemed appropriate to begin my talk with a silence, to honour all of those who took part in that momentous day. It suited me well to open with reflection, as it has become my mission to invite people to rescue the stories of their relatives who took part in the Second World War. The silent generation left most of us with a one sentence legend at best: ‘he fought in Italy’; ‘she drove an ambulance’; ‘he was a POW in Malaya’; or similar. The next generation down often don’t even have the one sentence legend and so, if we are to rescue these stories, it has to be done soon before they are lost forever.

The purpose of excavating these stories, bringing them into the light and making them widely available is multi-layered. At the beginning of the WI meeting we all sang Jerusalem. It’s such a part of our cultural heritage that it’s easy to sing it automatically and without really thinking about it. The last verse asks us to build Jerusalem/Heaven here and to never give up trying to achieve that:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

England's green & pleasant land
England’s Green & Pleasant Land

At the time of the Second World War this was an almost literal command, had Blake used ‘gun’ instead of ‘sword’. Delving into the lives of loved ones who took part helps us to convert the abstract idea of sacrifice into solid deeds and values. The realisation of the courage shown humbles us, especially when the person was youthful at the time. Would we have done that? Made that decision? Taken responsibility for other peoples’ lives? Faced with a similarly dire circumstance today, how would we respond?

It is not only us as individuals who can learn from deepening our understanding of that generation. As a nation we are struggling with our sense of identity. We have seen our ugliness unleashed – greed, selfishness, intolerance, ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, and cruelty bursting through our civilised veneer like an angry red pustule. Our response is, not unreasonably, despair and anxiety, but we know that we have a better self. If we have forgotten what it looks like, the Second World War generation can remind us. We carry them within us – in our genes, in our hearts and minds and in our capabilities.

Thanks to the prolonged peace in Europe we do not face a military threat, but we do face a global climate crisis that needs every ounce of commitment, intelligence, co-operation, ingenuity, and leadership that a war draws out of us. I hope the media coverage of 75th anniversaries over the next year will catalyse a transformation into a more positive national identity. Not a regressive restoration to a small-minded and outdated ’empire spirit’ nationalism, but a determination to be our best selves to respond to a challenging future.

Today would be Dad’s 105th birthday and it’s the first birthday of Stranger In My Heart. Happy birthday, dear book!

Stranger News

It is almost a year since Stranger In My Heart was launched. I have recently received my royalty statement from Unbound which said that, in the 9 months from June 2018 to March 2019 I sold about 1,000 copies, half e-book and half paperback edition. I’m told that I should be pleased about this, even if it seems small reward for the blood, sweat and tears that went into the project! It also means that I have over £800 to donate to the Riding for the Disabled Association. I am figuring out how to donate it for maximum impact and will keep you posted.

The TV company that are making a documentary series to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2 have told me that they won’t be filming me after all, but it will still be great to have the Hong Kong story told on prime time TV. The show will air in the autumn and they have said they’ll tell me when it is on.

Next week I have the first of several talks to Women’s Institutes in Wiltshire. As it is a lovely sunny day I thought I’d go and sit in the garden and read my book! As in read MY book. I’ve become so focused on my work in progress that I’ve forgotten the details of Stranger In My Heart and I don’t want to look an idiot by not being able to answer questions about it!

I just heard from the Commanding Officer of 19RA, the Regiment that Dad commanded in the 1950s. They have a scrapbook detailing what they were doing throughout his Command, including their activities in Korea and Hong Kong. I am going to go over to Larkhill in a few weeks to have a look at it. It will fill in an annoying gap in my knowledge of his army career. Here he is in front of his troops in Korea. It says it’s the Queen’s Birthday Parade, but 9th June is also Dad’s birthday.

19RA, Korea 1955
Dad in Korea with 19RA, 1955