Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Christmas To Forget

I didn't know it that night, but this was to be the last time I’d see my father.


We sat, my mother, my brother David and I, amid the over-the-top tinsel and decorations in the modest hotel restaurant. My father wore a dark gray suit, stiff white collar and the tie of the Durham Light Infantry, probably the only person among the forty or fifty others in the room to be wearing a tie.


This was his way. It was how he'd been brought up. I can remember him even on sultry August days at Whitstable, sitting with his knees drawn up on the crowded beach with a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph, and wearing a wool serge suit and highly polished black shoes with sock suspenders. He may not have looked it, but he was comfortable.


But now it was Christmas Day, 1957. I was 26, and he'd turned 70 a few weeks before. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that this gaunt, burnt-out man was 23 years younger than I am today.


It was an odd, superficially festive little gathering. We went through the traditional courses of roast turkey with sage stuffing, Christmas pudding aflame in brandy, and mince pies. We pulled the crackers and blew the whistles and read and laughed at the bad jokes that spilled out of them, and we raised our glasses to the future. But the sad truth was that the four of us were strangers to one another, and also that the old man had barely any future left.


David and I never really knew our parents. We were both sent miles away to a boarding school when I was eight. I don't remember ever sharing a feeling or fear with my father or mother. It's not that they weren't kind to us, or even that they didn't love us. It was simply that neither knew how to show affection. The only time my father and I ever touched was to shake hands whenever we met or parted.


Nor have David and I ever known each other well, even though we were together for endless years at school. He was more than three years older than I, and while I had been outgoing, cheeky and garrulous, he was a quiet, solitary boy. My parents never seemed to notice that as a teenager, and later as a man, David had no women friends, and rarely brought home any of his many men friends, who seemed to have oddly diverse social and educational backgrounds.


The meal ended, as Christmas and Easter family dinners always did, with what my father called ‘a nice healthy walk.' When he’d paid the check, counting out the one-pound notes and half-crowns and shillings with care and attention like the bank clerk he’d once been, we faced into the cold sea air, heading for the beach.


It was dark on the steep slope down to the concrete walkway along the sea-front. The tide had turned, and now dragged on the coarse, flinty shingle below us. Out on the horizon the beam of a lightship pulsed. Ahead of my mother and me, David and the old man walked more briskly.


As we strolled along together my mother turned to me. "So how do like your new life, Johnny?"


After eight years in the British Army I was on leave, and in a few days would begin my first civilian job. In the service I'd had a roof over my head, three meals a day, excitement and the company of friends. It had been like living in an expensive gentlemen's club, with my own driver, even my own servant. But suddenly I was alone, friendless in an attic room in London, and about to start a new life. Though I didn't admit it, I felt lost, and a little scared of the future.


I lied in reply to my mother's question. "Fine, Mum. My new life's fine."


"But are you happy?" she asked.


"Happy enough," I said. "What about you?"


My mother took my arm as we walked. It was something she'd rarely done.


"No," she said. "I'm not happy. But then I haven't been for years. Not since I married your dad. Surely you must know that."


I didn't know. I was speechless. Had this happened today, were she still alive, I might have said "Do you want to talk about it?" But I didn't. We walked on.


"What are you thinking?" she asked.


By now we'd fallen back some way behind my father and brother.


"I was wondering . . . well, why you married him," I said, "were things so different then?"


"Not really," she said. "I escaped, you see. You know the story. Your grandfather had walked out years before. There we all were. Mother and five unmarried daughters in that beastly cramped little house at North Foreland. It was like a pressure cooker. Then I met your father at a friend's house. It seemed . . ."


"It seemed what?” I heard a sharp, involuntary edge in my voice.


She looked up. "You're angry, aren't you?" She released my arm. "I'm sorry, I've upset you. But, you see, marrying him just seemed to be the way out at the time."'


My mother changed the subject and we caught up with the others.


"What are you two chatting about?" my father asked, smiling.


My mother laughed. "Oh, you know. Shoes, ships, sealing wax . . .”


Two days later David and I took the train back to London. For weeks I turned my mother's words over and over in my mind, but I never told David.


My father died less than three months later. He went to sleep one night and never woke up. The circumstances were odd. In their final years together, the old man snored heavily, and my parents slept in separate rooms. At least, that was the reason they always gave for sleeping apart. And there was something else; he'd become almost miserly about money and had for years locked the bedroom door behind him, hiding his billfold under his pillow.


Every morning, at seven sharp, my mother would make a cup of tea and take it to his door. She'd knock and there was no answer. My mother climbed a ladder to the open bedroom window to find him dead.


Was it the wine on that Christmas evening that caused my mother's impulsive admission? Or did she need the release of this tragic secret to unburden herself, to share her load? She lived for another 30 years, and died in her 90th year, but she never mentioned it again.


And nor did I.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A MAN'S GOTTA DO WHAT . . .

Devon rhymes with heaven, and for good reason. It’s all green grass, chocolate-box cottages and fishermen’s coves, wedged between three equally beautiful counties: Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. Together, these make up the farthest corner of England -- a paradisical peninsula jutting into the Celtic Sea, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
When an Englishman thinks of Devonshire, cider and clotted cream come to mind, and wild Exmoor, where buzzards swoop overhead, and red deer and wild ponies roam free. So the very last thing anyone would associate with Devon would be the Stafford Furniture Company, Limited.
In the 1970s, the Devonshire town council of Barnstaple voted quietly for the creation of an industrial park to be tucked in a woody area on the edge of the town. This would result in jobs, and in increased business and tax income, they claimed. It would be good for Barnstaple. The local weekly paper gave the story supportive splash headlines, and not a letter was written to the editor; and not a voice raised in protest. Barnstaple’s people weren’t like that. Not at that point, anyway.
Barnstaple’s elders kept a wary eye on the kinds of plant that set up shop in their industrial park. The newcomers tended to be environmentally friendly -- which was not a phrase much used in England at that time. There was a manufacturer of duvets, for whom an environmental crisis could be nothing more serious than a cloud of goose feathers  accidentally leaked into the atmosphere. There were two household furniture factories that made couches and armchairs out of local oak and imported hardwoods. Another made window shades, and others produced balls of twine, cardboard boxes, and a brand of confectionery very similar to Twinkies.
And then along came Jack Stafford, a tall, lean man in his early thirties who had bushy black eyebrows, and who, had he chosen to be an actor, would have made a perfect hero in a Bronte or Dickens movie. Jack was a furniture designer who had recently won several awards from Britain’s prestigious Design Council. However, his furniture was not comfy couches and chairs for peoples’ homes. His business was contract furniture, and his specialty was stacking chairs, for use in conference rooms, hospitals and other public places. He’d been so successful that his firm had recently been bought by the Thomas Tilling Group, a conglomerate active in everything from life insurance and laboratory glassware to engineering. Stafford’s small workshop in Norfolk could no longer cope with the demand, and Tilling agreed to invest in a new plant elsewhere.
When Stafford’s planning application reached the town council, the burghers of Barnstaple read it with care. They looked at artfully lit photographs of his award-winning chairs, and another that showed his impressive gold-plated trophy from the Design Council. The recent acquisition by the respected Thomas Tilling Group was noted, and the application was accepted.
At that time I was already a public relations consultant to several Tilling Group companies, including Stafford Furniture. Jack Stafford and I drove down to Devon to see how the new building, on a site on the edge of Barnstaple Bay, was progressing. For me, the main aim of this trip was to gather enough information to write a proposal for  organizing and publicizing the official opening of the plant about a year later.
At one point we passed a rectangular building, out of which several pipes snaked toward the bay.
“What’s that going to be?” I asked.
“That? Oh, it’ll be the water treatment plant.”
“What’s it going to treat, exactly?”
Jack seemed unconcerned. “It takes the gunk out of the water we use in the plating process.”
“What kind of gunk?”
“Well, chromium and cadmium, actually. They’re deadly poisons, of course. We use them to put the chrome on the chairs. The treatment plant will filter it out, so by the time it gets into the bay it’ll be as clean as a whistle.”
That sounded okay to me, and my mind switched elsewhere.
The plant began what they called ‘pilot production’ about three months before the official opening ceremony planned for April 1971. A few days after the first shiny chrome-plated chairs came off the assembly line, Jack Stafford called me in my office in London.
“Bit of a fuss going on in Devon, John,” he said.
“Really? “ I said.
“There are people demonstrating at the gate.”
Demonstrating? What about?”
“Some of the townspeople are in a bit of a tizzy about the plating plant. They’ve heard about the chrome and cadmium. They think our treated water could kill the fish in the bay, and find its way into the town’s water supply.”
“What’s your reaction to that?” I asked.
“Piffle,” he said. “Absolute bosh! That water’s as pure as the driven snow. Why? A baby could drink it."
In a day or so we’d fixed a press conference, at which the plant manager and I met the demonstrators and the local media. Armed with documents from the firm of consultants certifying the purity of the water, we took reporters on a guided tour of the plant. On the next day the noisy, banner-waving crowd was gone from the factory gates and, later in the week, stories appeared in the local paper and broadcast media assuring Barnstaple’s citizens that they had nothing to fear.

For the next few months all was quiet. Then, one day in the spring, Jack Stafford and his board of directors converged on the town’s best hotel, with me, of course, in readiness for the opening ceremony. Later in the day came Sir Geoffrey Eley, the chairman of the Thomas Tilling Group and others of his ilk, together with Jeremy Thorpe, the popular Member of Parliament for Devon North. With my press releases, photographs, lists of invitees, name tabs and other PR paraphernalia after weeks of preparatory work, I was there checking and counter-checking, phoning and fussing.
That evening, as we all relaxed in the hotel bar enjoying pre-dinner drinks, I heard what seemed to be raised voices in the street outside the hotel. I looked out the window, where about thirty people were gathering, unfurling banners on which the word ‘Poison’ seemed to be prominent.
“They’re back,” I whispered to Jack.
“Who?”
“The demonstrators.”
Stafford and I slipped out of the bar and into the street, where a slightly belligerent man with a red, round face asked me, “Is that Jack Stafford bloke in there?”
“He’s right here.” I told him.
Stafford strolled up to the man, for all the world like Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. But he held out his hand. “How do you do,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
 “Well, you can shut down that bloody factory for a start!” the man said.
An argument began about the efficacy of the water treatment plant, at the end of which Stafford said, “Listen, my good man, I thought we cleared this up once and for all last year. Tell me, what do we have to do to convince you that this water’s perfectly safe?”
The man thought for a moment, and his colleagues craned to hear his answer.
“There’s only one thing,” he said. “If you can get one of them high-ups to drink some of that water himself, in front of the newspapers and that. Then we’ll believe ya’”
“Bargain,” said Stafford, and they shook hands again.
Who’d impress them most, Jack and I wondered. We doubted Sir Geoffrey Eley would do it. Who better, we agreed, than their own, likeable Member of Parliament?
Back in the bar I sidled up to Jeremy Thorpe and put the question to him.
With a sly grin he said. “Why not? But there’s just one condition.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“That you drink it first,” said the MP for Devon North.

In the morning I slipped out the hotel and bought an elegant crystal goblet from the nearby Dartington Glass Works, and half an hour later, the Right Honorable Jeremy Thorpe, MP, Jack Stafford, a foreman and I stood together, alone, around a faucet in the water treatment plant.
The water ran clear and clean. I raised the goblet to my lips. It was flat, but utterly tasteless. I refilled the glass and passed it to the others.
“Not a vintage year, I’d say,” Thorpe said dryly.

Three hours later the band played, Sir Geoffrey Eley cut the ceremonial tape, and the VIP party meandered through the plant under the watchful eyes of the reporters and TV cameras. At the water treatment plant, true to his word, Jeremy Thorpe drank a convincing amount of the water. Then, inviting an unbiased witness to join him, he poured himself another glass, carried it to the front of the building, raised his goblet to the crowd, and downed the entire contents. Smiling broadly, the Right Honorable Member made a little bow.
The demonstrators had watched silently among the public on their tiered benches, waiting for the show, their banners furled but ready. Slowly, a ripple of applause from the audience swelled into cheers.
And we never heard from them again.
                       
                       oooOooo


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

SHOTS IN THE DARK


All right, I’ll admit it. When we rode out into the dark on those distant nights, we felt more like cowboys than infantrymen. But instead of horses, our mounts were two open-topped jeeps, with steel pickets like ships’ prows welded to their fenders, ready to slice through the lethal, invisible steel wires the enemy stretched across dark mountain roads at just the height that could chop off a man’s head. It was the winter of 1956, and the enemy was EOKA, a private army of Greek Cypriot partisans bent on wresting independence from the British in Cyprus, led by the same men who’d harassed and demoralized the Nazi and Italian fascist occupying armies in mainland Greece eleven years earlier, at the end of World War II.
Now, under a cold, cloudless sky at around 2:00 a.m., we swung out through the heavily guarded gates of our camp into a moonlit landscape. We drove fast, our engines reverberating in the narrow streets of the sleeping villages along the way. As the leader of  the patrol, I drove the front jeep. Beside me sat Private Lou Davies, a chirpy ginger-haired draftee who, only months earlier, had worn another uniform as the driver of trains between London and Birmingham. Now he crouched behind a spotlight and a Bren medium machine gun, its bipod resting on two sandbags like cement pillows on the hood of the vehicle, while his eyes swept the terrain around us. Behind Davies sat my radio operator, Freddie Higgs, an amateur boxer, his head wrapped in an oversized headset under a swaying twelve-foot aerial, from the top of which fluttered a yellow pennant. Squeezed into the back seat next to Higgs, ‘Tiny’ Mustapha, a massive Turkish Cypriot police sergeant with the girth of a Sumo wrestler, chewed tobacco throughout the patrol, occasionally clearing his throat and spitting out of the jeep. In the second vehicle, towing a two-wheel trailer with mail and rations, Lance Corporal Peters and three privates followed closely behind, their rifles and a Sten sub-machine gun covering our rear.
They called this nightly routine ‘The Dynamite Run,’ one of the least popular missions in a five-year terrorist war about which hardly any Americans have ever heard.  Our destination was Mitsero, one of many copper and asbestos mines that lay in the shadow of the 5000-ft Troodos mountains that form Cyprus’s rugged backbone.
Where there are copper mines there are always plastic explosives, the essential ingredients for making primitive bombs and anti-personnel mines. Mitsero was therefore a priority target for EOKA.  About twenty miles from our base, Mitsero stored the demolition equipment for a dozen other mineral mines nearby. The stone building was ringed with a wall of sandbags and razor wire, and a circle of outward facing floodlights. A group comprised of a sergeant and nine men, armed with an arsenal of light mortars and automatic weapons, manned it day and night. Every night, a patrol such as ours took out supplies, but also gave moral support to isolated little units like this one, which was from time to time a target for snipers from the mountains that towered over it.
For the first fifteen miles or so we sped through rolling countryside, past olive and carob plantations and a dozen darkened villages. But in the last few miles we were forced to drive more slowly when the road to Mitsero snaked and climbed, narrower now, its unfenced curves carved out of the mountains, and often hanging several hundred feet over a sheer drop.  From here on we were perfect targets. The corkscrew track passed over dozens of culverts in which it was only too easy to plant remotely detonated mines. Weeks earlier a member of our own platoon had been crushed to death on this strip of road after his scout car overturned. But what made these missions even more hazardous was the fact that there was only one usable road to and out of Mitsero.  If EOKA were looking out for us on any night, they knew we’d be every bit as easy a target heading home as we’d been going out.
And so it was that night. We’d reached Mitsero without incident. For half an hour or so we sat around a table in the store, by the light of a hissing Colman lantern, drinking tea laced with rum, smoking and chatting with the few men in the unit who were awake.
We were more than half way home when they got us, passing through Kokkino Trimithia, a dot on the map with a picturesque church, a coffee shop and a few dozen unremarkable stone houses, surrounded by olive groves. We’d just entered the village when a short burst of machine gun fire crashed into our offside fender.  I braked and, with the metallic reverberation of the shots still shrilling in our ears, we scrambled from our trucks and spread out, taking what cover we could behind the concrete-mixers and stacked bricks around what was clearly a building site. Peters, in the second vehicle, had spotted the flashes from the weapon, in a building maybe thirty yards away, up a steep gradient. His alert co-driver, crouching behind the now static jeep, swung his searchlight up the slope, training the powerful beam on a half-built, roofless single story cinderblock house. For a fraction of a second, in one of the building’s hollow window frames, we spotted two men crouched over a weapon, caught like road kill in the headlights. 
      While Peters and his team gave us covering fire, Davies, Higgs, the Turkish sergeant and I spread out, to be halted momentarily by a burst of automatic fire.  Seconds later there was an ear-splitting explosion in one of the unfinished window cavities of the house, and then a total, mystifying silence.
      In a minute, still covered by Peters and his crew, the four of us had run on up the slope and made a cursory search of the shell of the little four-roomed house. There was nobody there, but the sharp smell of Baratol explosive hung in the building’s open room spaces.
Tiny Mustapha was breathless by the time we reached the little house. But, leaning, panting against the stone wall he removed a brown, folded envelope from his tunic pocket with the letters OHMS printed on it – On Her Majesty’s Service. Armed with a flashlight, he unfolded it and was soon crawling around on the sandy, unfinished floor of the room from whose windows we’d been attacked.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“You not see blood in the doorway?
I hadn’t seen any blood. Maybe my being colorblind didn’t help.
Still kneeling on the floor, the big policeman held up his envelope to me.
“Then, you look in here, sir.”
Taking his flashlight I peered into the envelope, at the bottom of which seemed to be one or two small pieces of . . . of what?
“What are they, Tiny?”
The Turkish policeman literally left me holding the bag.
“That big bang, sir,” the Turk said, “They throw a grenade. A Number 36 Mills bomb. See . . .?”
He held up a small, threaded metal disc. “This is base plug, and here is striker lever.  But it go off too quick, see? Maybe blow off his whole hand. Now I collect it up. If we get bigger pieces of fingers like these, we get good fingerprints! We look for more. You help?”
While the crew of the other jeep followed the trail of blood from the house with their flashlights, Davies, the gunner, watched over us while we searched the floor inch by inch. Scrabbling in the dirt, in addition to a handful of used 300 caliber cartridge cases, we found a few unidentifiable pieces of flesh and bone, and had soon accounted for what were later identified as pieces of three fingers.
“No thumb,” Mustapha said. “Big pity. Thumbs make best prints.”
We searched for a while longer until, with a joyful whoop, the Turkish sergeant pounced on most of a right-hand thumb.
“With this,” he said, holding it up, his eyes popping with excitement, “we get fingerprints. Now we can do something!”
But for all of our patient searching that night we achieved nothing. It was a mystery. The trail of blood led some fifty yards round the back of two houses and disappeared without trace on the narrow street through the village. The forensic people at the police headquarters in Nicosia got good clear images from Mustapha’s trophies, but their CID – Criminal Investigation Department – colleagues could find no prints in their files to match them.
Why hadn’t he thrown the grenade? There were two fuses available for a Mills bomb, for four seconds and seven seconds. Maybe he had a four second fuse and thought he had a seven second one. And why wasn’t he killed by a bomb that had a killing range of up to fifteen feet? Had the bomber maybe been killed instantly and borne away by his comrade? Or had he lived to tell his own grizzly tale? 
.  .  .

Three years later, a civilian again, I was back in Cyprus on contract to the British Government as the press officer for the colony’s emergency police force. On my last day on the island I stood, incognito, on a sidewalk in Nicosia, the island’s capital, within sight of the saluting base as Sir Hugh Foot, the colony’s last governor, relinquished the government of Cyprus to Archbishop Makarios, the new Republic’s first president.
After the hand-over, the handshakes and the hymns, a military band struck up. Leading the freedom parade, marching past the Archbishop and his fledgling cabinet ministers, came the heroes of the revolution – the men of  EOKA.
Remembering that night in Kokkino a few years earlier, I searched for a marcher with no hand with which to salute. In the first little squad there seemed to be no such man. And nor was there one in the second group. But as the last squad passed there was, indeed, a limping man who, with his right sleeve hanging empty and pinned below the elbow, saluted with his left hand.
Could that have been he? I’ll never know. Looking back over more than sixty years I accept that, while to me and my comrades he was simply a terrorist thug, to himself and his fellow countrymen he was a freedom fighter and more than that, a patriot.
I’m old now, and I don’t care anymore. At least in our own minds, didn’t each of us have right on his side?
                                

                                 * * *

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

AFTERMATH OF 9/11

This month, September, marks the

13th anniversary of the 9/11 attack

on the World Trade Center.  A few 

days afterwards, Lynn and I were 

staying at the house of friends

in Ojai, California,when I read 

an account of the aftermath in the

New York Times.

 

Here’s what I wrote that afternoon:




Aftermath 9/11


Ojai, California
September 14, 2001

Here, all around me, is a landscape
begging to be painted.
Beyond a redbrick terrace
blue and purple plants crowd in;
species that I’ve never seen before.
drifts of giant sage, lucantha,
and here and there a common rose.

Beyond all this stand orange trees and limes
and lemons. Further out, beyond the reach
of  water pipes and hoses,
are arid places with clusters of spiky succulents,
and part-dismembered, unattended cacti.

Above the borders, bees dart
among cascades of flowering herbs,
while butterflies, like shreds of tissue paper,
swirl and rise and fall.

The scene is mute and motionless.
No foreign sound, no breeze, no barking dog,
no distant drone of planes or traffic,
or the laughter of playing children.

But now look down. Here, open on my lap,
the Sunday paper shows an anguished and
chaotic scene two thousand miles away.
A photo shows the silhouetted,
criss-cross lattice of the shattered towers’ remains.
A devil-made design that could,
were it left unsalvaged where it stands,
become a starker and more telling monument
than any man-made memorial.
And on another page, portraits of two
dozen wanted men, their faces
grave and troubled, even shameful,
as though they’d had some premonition
of their act’s outcome.

Two pages on – the tragic flip-side of the assault
– are fifteen portraits of dead and missing victims,
their faces smiling, or in repose. Each bears
some eulogistic paragraph:
the scoutmaster; a man called Yang,
who earned ten bucks an hour; Katherine who
loved the stage, Ruben, the Michael Jordan fan
who lived for sport.

Hundreds of such pictures have appeared
and there’ll be thousands more.
Reflect. How different did these gentle faces look
in their last fear-frozen moments?

Meanwhile, the nation reels,
vowing not to turn the other cheek,
and speaking of revenge, and war.
And after this carnage, dare I demand:
where is God, all-knowing, just and merciful?



John Birch
2001