Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Remembrance Day

Today was the first time I’ve spent Remembrance Sunday in Barmouth. I say this because I’ve spent many days in the town over the years, and of course I’ve known a lot of Remembrance Sundays- 34 of them so far. But never at the same time, till now.

Barmouth, for those who don’t know it, is a small town on the Welsh coast- the county of Gwynedd, or Merionydd as they’re calling it again now. My Dad was born and grew up there, and my grandmother- Nanw, as we call her, which is the Welsh for ‘Mum’- lives there still.

She’s 93 now, and lives in sheltered accommodation, but when I was a kid, growing up, she had her own place and would put us up for weekends or longer- a week at half-term, longer still at Easter or in the summer. Me and my sister, and my parents.

This weekend I went up there for a sort of working holiday. I needed a short break, and also a novel I’m working on has a couple of chapters set there. Usually I only visit the town briefly these days, when we visit her at Christmas for the day.

So, a touch of research, a chance- an excuse really- to go climbing (the big hills above the town, known as Dinas Oleu, or the Fortress of Light) and a chance to visit my gran. All to the good.

My gran lives alone. She’s been married twice; the second, after the war, was to my Dad’s stepfather, who died of Parkinson’s disease about a year later. But her first husband was the true love of her life. My grandfather, Bernard Bestwick, who died at Normandy on the 10th of June 1944. He was 28 years old.

‘Love was over for me that day,’ my grandmother told me. ‘It’s never been the same since.’ She was at home when she heard; she’d finally got the address of his base and was writing a letter to him, when her mother came in and took the pen from her hand. ‘It’s no good writing to him now,’ she said. ‘Yes it is, Mum, I’ve got his address now.’ They didn’t have a telephone at their house; Bernard’s parents had rung the next-door neighbours to tell them he was dead, and to speak to my gran.

My father was one year and nine months old.

My grandfather’s name is on the war memorial in Barmouth. Right at the top, on the side that faces my grandmother’s flat. Which she’s glad of. She can almost see it from her kitchen window.

But it’s never been the same for her since that day.

When I was younger, it never really had much impact from me. My Dad’s Dad having died in the war was just a fact, like my grandmother being an old woman who lived in a nice place by the seaside was a fact, and my Mum’s parents living near us in Cheshire was a fact. The war was something you read about in comics and saw in old black and white films. But as you get older, you think more about these things- at least that’s how it’s been for me- and look harder into your family, into your past. Over the last few years, it’s become a lot more real. The young man, so like my father to look at- and by extension quite like me, because there’s a lot of my Dad in my own looks- who died at 28, six years younger than I am now, sat here writing this down on a notepad on a train running from Barmouth to Crewe on my way home from this break. Died when his tank was hit by a German shell. He was a Corporal, and driving the tank. He and two other troopers were killed- hopefully outright. Their bodies were badly burnt. The officer, in the turret of the tank, was also killed, but thrown clear. His first name was Bernard, apparently, like my grandfather’s. They didn’t find his body for two or three days.

My grandfather is buried at Hermanville Cemetery near Caen, Normandy. I’ve been there once, when I was about 12, I think- too young to really understand. I need to go there again. Lay a wreath. Pay measure of respect to a man I never knew.

‘We were innocent,’ my grandmother said of them both. Would I go off to war as readily as my grandfather’s generation did? I don’t know. My generation is more used to getting what it wants, maybe, and less used to having responsibilities of that kind- but also it’s harder to trust the kind of leaders we’ve got now. As I write this, the United States of America has just elected its first black president, and ousted one of the most corrupt, brutal and vile administrations in its history. There’s a sense that we’ve turned some kind of a corner with this election, that despite staring at the worst economic crisis since the Wall Street Crash, we may be looking at a better future, at a world where we can have a little more hope for the things I was told my grandfather died for- freedom, justice, real democracy. I bloody well hope so, anyway. Because I think of my grandmother, still mourning the man she loved. I think of the picture of my grandfather that’s always been on display at her home. All year round there’s a poppy tucked into the frame; each November she buys a new one and puts the old one in her lapel.

For the last 64 years, Remembrance has not been a ritual performed once a year, a moment of silence observed on a single day. For my grandmother, it has been a daily part of her life.

And if politicians are going to condemn young brides to that, if they’re going to condemn infants like my Dad to growing up fatherless, then they’d better have a damn good reason, that’s all I can say. But then, don’t they bloody always?

My grandmother is quite frail now. She walks with difficulty. She recently had a fall, and this year, the very brief walk to the war memorial was beyond her. She’d bought a small spray of poppies with a card: ‘Bernard Bestwick, Normandy 1944, greatly missed by all his family.’

I took it there for her. The big memorial service at St John’s Church was still underway, so it was quiet. There was a wreath already there. There’s a railing round the memorial, but today, of course, the little gate at the side of it was unlocked and open.

I put the spray down at the foot of the memorial, on the side facing my grandmother, and weighted it down with two or three pebbles- a harsh wind was blowing in from the sea, spattering rain on the town. I looked up at the inscription on the memorial. I might have said something. ‘Thank you,’ perhaps. I can’t actually remember.

The kind of world we’ve have lived in if our side had lost the Second World War doesn’t bear thinking about for any real length of time. ‘For our tomorrow, they gave their today’; that’s the phrase. And it’s not just true of the likes of my grandfather; it’s true of the other, silent casualties like my grandmother, the ones who’ve been paying the price over the years since then.

Bernard Francis Bestwick, HQ Sqn 13th/18th Royal Hussars. Rest in peace.


Crazy Fitter said...

Thanks Simon, I read your post and was deeply moved. I too have family who died in WW2, a distant cousin who was a rear gunner in the Dam Busters and who didn’t survive, a distant uncle who captained a merchantman in the North Atlantic Convoys, and did survive and settled post-war in Toronto. A man I did meet was a Japanese POW and worked on the Burmese railway. He didn’t live long after I met him in about 1958 and incredibly I can’t remember how he was related. I come from a mining family so no immediate family were involved. My father did apply to join the army but he had exceptionally high arches to his feet and his pit boots were made to measure and the army wouldn’t take him.

I’ve only been to 3 Remembrance Day Parades, twice as a Boy Scout and once as an adult when I lived in Oldham. The Oldham parade was a strange experience, hardly anyone was there except for the necessary contingents. A friend remarked that it was a ‘circus’ but he couldn’t explain his comment and it was many years before I came to a similar conclusion. The point I think is that these ceremonies are not ‘anti nazi’ or ‘anti fascist’ and I think they should be after all that’s what it was all about. Appallingly I don’t know anyone who can say what WW1 was about and I have to confess that I waffle on the subject.

Most people I know regard history as a series of boxes, this is WW1, this is Spanish Civil War, this is WW2 etc but it is a mistaken view. History is a straight line and a series of causes and effects. If WW1 hadn’t happened then neither would WW2 and we all might have Hitler prints on our lounge walls next to Picasso’s Spanish Pastoral Period prints circa 1932-1938.

War memorials for the most part are appalling. What on earth have Roman Columns and concrete angels got to do with anti fascism? I actually like the Oldham monument, which depicts a nasty wartime scene, and has a ‘Daybook’, which turns a page daily and displays the name of any Oldhamer killed on that day. The expression, ‘The Glorious Dead’ I have long thought to be an oxymoron as it is to live that is glorious. This solar system we inhabit was created about 4.5 billion years ago and all the atoms, which comprise us, were created at that time. We have effectively been dead all that time and will be again for an even longer period soon enough. In short war is a crime but these Parades glorify it.

The world has improved, for me it means that I have never been kidnapped by the state or witnessed or suffered in a war and for that I’m more than grateful. In fact the more I think about it all the more I’m glad I’m not a politician, which sounds enormously selfish but represents the fact that putting a full stop in a cause and effect link is very difficult. I’m rambling so I’ll put my full stop here. Best Wishes.

Unknown said...

That was a fantastic post mate.

Very moving.

Simon said...

Thanks fellas. Sorry I've not been back before, but various things intervened.

Crazy Fitter, I know what you mean about WW1. For me that often seems the worse conflict because of the pointlessness, waste and stupidity of it all. German militarism was seen as one of the reasons for the conflict, but I think most of the big powers had unrest of one kind or another at home (socialism and feminism in Britain, revolutionists in Russia etcetera) and a war was a good distraction, and an excuse to clamp down on internal dissent. Add that to a shower of incompetent bastards in charge and you get four years of carnage. The Guardian journalist George Monbiot coined the term 'ephebicide' (the mass slaughter of the young by the old) for it. The full- and excellent- article is here:

And if it hadn't happened, then as you say there would never have been a WW2. I keep hoping... not that we'll learn. It's not about learning. We've seen in the last five years the language and suffering of WW2 twisted to justify the invasion of Iraq. Most war memorials and war remembrance glosses over the loss and suffering and turns it into an exercise in 'patriotism'- which is basically the fodder for whipping people up for the next war. It's not that we haven't learned, it's that power resides in the hands of an elite who are completely merciless when it comes to extending or maintaining it. What we're supposed to do about that, I don't know. I just hope one day we're able to do away with people like that and rule ourselves sanely. Chance would be a fine thing.