Friday, June 27, 2014

Deutschland deine Engländer (© Stern), a waffle on national identity, my Onkel August and Der Stahlhelm and what exactly did the pater do for the security of his country?

Well, this very English but also very German chap didn’t get to write that last day entry, and is now back in Old Blighty, with a replenished stock of cigars – cheap as chips on the Continent – and a pound or two in extra weight.

I don’t usually eat much bread, if any at all, or biscuits or cakes, but while I was at my sisters I joined in breakfast, and although I stuck to pumpernickel, I did have the occasionally fresh Brötchen. Then there were the snacks and the gins and tonic, beer and several Brazilian caipirinhas courtesy of the bottle of cachaça (sugarcane spirit – don’t worry, I didn’t know what it was, either, until about 13 days ago) I found Lidl selling for a very attractive price.

In fact, like the price of halfway decent cigars (which in my book is everything which isn’t a Castella), boozes prices on the Continent – except Scandanavia of course, which chooses to plough it’s own furrow when it comes down to getting pissed – are also a damn sight more rational, not to say more acceptable, than here in Britain. And although the Germans don’t actually drink less than the Brits, cheaper booze has not yet led them to drinking more, either. My niece’s boyfriend prepared the caipirinhas and they were very nice indeed. I recommend them, though it has to be said they are more of a summer drink. I can’t imagine they would go down too well in sunny Scandanavia.

Calling myself an English German might sound — and undoubtedly is, sadly — ever so slightly pretentious, but it also happens to be true. I was chatting with my sister last night and she told me something which echoed what I have long ago felt: that she belongs somewhere in the middle of the English Channel (or ‘The Sleeve’ as we rootless, though gentile, cosmopolitans like to call it.) And I know exactly what she means.

Years ago I was chatting to a guy who was half Burmese, half English and he confessed he didn’t know what he was and in the long run felt neither Burmese or English. Our case is not quite as marked in that the English and the Germans have a great deal in common, but we both, my sister and I, know what he feels. In some ways my sister’s and my histories are different: born to the same German mother, we moved to Berlin when I was nine and a half and she was just under three. I was almost immediately packed off to German schools with my older brother, learnt the language and then returned to England four years later, more or less a German.

She would have been seven when we came back and although she had been to a German Kindergarten, whatever German she learnt she (I think) forgot and didn’t learn to speak the language until she married a German. But our histories differ in that in 1965 our father was posted to Paris by the BBC, and she and our younger brother were enrolled in a French school and learnt French, whereas I and our older brother were locked away in a Roman Catholic boarding school, the Oratory School. (We’d both already been there for, respectively, two and three years, but for a year we were ‘day boys’, as we only lived eight miles away and, I should imagine more to the point, it was also a damn sight cheaper. To this day I wonder exactly how my dad was able to afford the Oratory’s fees, unless he had something of a second income packing a Gestaetner 404 dual action for the ‘security services’.

Actually, I think the BBC helped out with fees while we were in Paris, and Oxfordshire County Council helped out with my brother because he had passed his 11-plus, but was not taking up a grammar school place.) So my sister and our younger brother grew up in France, spending their formative years there, to the extent that my younger brother feels more French in many ways. Me? Well, I can’t say I ‘feel German’, but nor do I ‘feel English’, and like my sister I ‘feel’ I belong somewhere in-between.

At my advanced age - 109 in November, but without, I hope, coming across as too vain, I know I could easily pass for 102 - and knowing myself a little better than I did when I was younger, I suspect my character is more German than English, but as I speak English without a trace of a foreign accent, no one ever notices. For example, as a rule the Germans are not ones for fannying around with euphemisms and polite replies, which, together with the fabled ‘guttural accent’ they are all by statue law obliged to adopt when they speak English - and none of them has a ‘guttural accent’ when they speak their native German - makes them come across to we British shrinking violets as ‘arrogant’.

In fact, all they are being is ‘direct’: ask a German what he thinks of something and he’ll tell you. But what he tells you is not always what the questioner wants to hear. That is not to say Germans are not polite, it’s just that their politeness manifests itself in different ways, not all, it has to be said, to my liking. They are not shy of giving you advice, a trait which might, in German, be described as Überheblichkeit.

So, for example, you might find yourself doing something — folding together a folding-together bicycle or using a spade — and, often a perfect stranger will come up to you and announce ‘Das machen Sie aber falsch!’ and proceed to tell you how to do it correctly. My point it that he is sincerely trying to be helpful — usually — and has no other motive at all, whereas for many foreigners he simply comes across as an interfering Kraut.

Indeed, he would probably be rather taken aback at the suggestion that he might well care to mind his own business because as far as he is concerned all he wants to do is to help you get things right: you’re not doing it as you should and he, gracefully, has decided to show you a better way of doing it. It does not occur to him that you might not want his advice because his fellow Germans, in fact, appreciate his concern.

As for ‘not having a sense of humour’, well forget it: the Germans, or most of them — remember that your North German is as different to your South German or East German as your Scouser or Tyke is to your average (and, to be honest, they are very average) southern jessie have a great sense of humour. Not all of them, certainly, but then there are as many po-faced Brits as there are po-faced Germans. Take it from me, the Germans have a great sense of humour.

I’ve got to say that I prefer by a long shot German food to English/British food. A very cheap shot would be to add that as seaweed is regarded as the national dish of Wales, the Scots make a great deal of a concoction of sheep’s intestines and stomach lining mixed with oats call haggis, and the English are immensely fond of offal of any kind as long as it is served with a pastry crust, it might not be difficult to understand why. But, as I say, that would be a cheap shot.

There are, of course, some very tasty British dishes. The only trouble is far too few folk here in Britain can be bothered spending more than the few seconds it takes to turn on the microwave as it cuts back dangerously on TV-watching time, so they put up with shite and pigswill. Another giveaway that Britain’s relationship with good food is remarkably flexible is that when, as does on occasion happen, a gastro-pub or restaurant does push the boat out and offer good food, it invariable costs you an arm and a leg even to take off your coat and sit down to enjoy it. Every so often I take my family and the occasional friend to a gastro-pub a few miles away, the St Tudy Inn. It is by no means exceptionally expensive, but picking up the bill for the four of us does mean the treat is necessarily an occasional one.

My week’s stay brought home to me yet again something I have long suspected: that although I speak English with an impeccable English accent and, at the moment, my German is not as good as it was (though I am confident I could again become truly bi-lingual if I spent a little more time there again), I am, as I said, in character more German than English. (NOTE to pedants: this entry is being written in stages, and most of the above was added after what is now to come, but I can’t be arsed to go through it all and make sure it reads coherently. Sorry, but this isn’t a PhD treatise.) But I should add the proviso that were I to live in Germany again, I am certain I would, sooner or later, come unstuck a little.

A German cousin who is spending the next year or so living in St Leonards and has sent his truly bi-lingual daughter – her mother is English – to a boarding school in Cambridge (his extended family is not short of a pfennig or two tells me that there are aspects about living in Britain he prefers, not least a certain free and easiness which can often be lacking in Germany. And he was not the first to tell me that.

Life can be very sweet in Germany if you follow the rules, but not quite as sweet if you step out of line or exhibit a certain bolshiness. And that’s why I suspect I might in time come unstuck a little. I can be very polite when I need be, but I like to be courteous and polite because I think it makes the world a more pleasant place for everyone and because I choose to be, not because I have to be. Germany is, of course, not just ‘Germany’ like England, Scotland and Wales are as different as they are the same.

My mother’s family and my brother-in-laws family all come from the North-West of Germany (although her children all grew up in the Rhineland), and the folk in Ostfriesland are very different indeed to the Bavarians, or Swabians, or Berliners. And what is ‘German’ in me is the traits found there, I suspect. Ideally, I should like to spend half the year living in Germany and the other half in Britain, just for the crack, although it would not be for the television, which is as dire as a lot of British TV.

. . .

While I was in Germany, I again looked up two elderly aunts, two sisters, though if you met them, you would agree that despite their ages – 80 next week and 90 quite soon – ‘elderly’ most certainly isn’t a good way of describing them. Both, especially the 90-year-old have more life in their little fingers than a great many folk I’ve met 30 years younger than they are. Both are now widows, though the younger sister was only widows a few years ago, whereas her sister, who lives in a village about 20 miles south lost her husband more than 26 years ago.

She was always lively and sociable and is still lively and sociable, but over the years many of her friends have died. I found it rather sad that the two substantial tables in her large living room are both decked out as though there is to be a party in a few hours time, though, of course, none is to be held. She also showed me what the large garden ‘hut’ which also had two tables laid out as for a party, and in which she and her husband did a great deal of socialising before he died. But no party is on the cards for the hut, either.

It was her father who would have nothing to do with the Nazis during the 1930s and who refused to allow is daughters to have anything to do with the Bund Deutscher Mädel, a decision rather resented by his daughter, who felt she was missing out on all kinds of sports and activities and, as a ten-year-old, couldn’t understand why her father was so against her joining. She told me all this last August when I saw her again after something like 47 years, and I rather admired the old man for what I thought was a brave and principled political stance.

This time I wanted to find out a little more about my father’s dealings with him after the war and during the late 1950s and 1960s. All I knew was that he had been recruited – by whom I am no longer sure – to be part of an ‘underground’ government should the Soviets invade what was then West Germany. Although he was a cousin of my mother’s through her mother, my father’s interest involved his activities – well, as I don’t know: just how close were his links with MI6? I’ve touched upon the question before and I still can’t suggest and answer.

As for Onkel August, as we called him (my father called him August) what I thought was enlightened opposition to the Nazis was nothing of the kind. Irmgard, his daughter, now 90, who I was pressing for more details had few. She remembers my father coming round and having long discussions with her father from which everyone else was excluded and the last time I saw her she told me of some mysterous Brit who regularly used to visit her father in the 1950s. She also remembers (who was it her sister Helma who told me this?) that once on a trip through the Emsland, which is still pretty rural, flat and remote, but was even more so then (can it be any ‘flatter’? Answers on a postcard, please) that it would be ‘good guerilla fighting country’.

Well, that comment would make sense if the Allies were preparing for a possible invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet. But to get to the point about ‘Onkels August’s’ opposition to the Nazis (he was apparently arrested and locked up in Hanover for six days at one point) it had nothing to do with being either enlightened or liberal as I had supposed. For Irmgard told me he had been an active member of Der Stahlhelm.

Hearing the name rang half a bell, but even without knowing much about the organisation at all, something told me it wasn’t a club dedicated to making jam and getting more folk interested in barbershop four-part harmony. Then I looked it up (on Wikipedia, sorry, I have vandalised the site often enough myself to take what appears there in its pages with more than a grain of salt. Der Stahlhelm, or to give it its full name Stahlhelm, der Bund der Frontsoldaten, was (and I quote from Wikipedia, which offers a succinct description was ‘one of the many paramilitary organizations that arose after the German defeat of World War I.

It was part of the ‘Black Reichswehr’ and in the late days of the Weimar Republic operated as the armed branch of the national conservative German National People's Party (DNVP), placed at party gatherings in the position of armed security guards’. In short a more right-wing equivalent of the NSDAP’s Sturmabteilung (SA), although describing it as such is not quite the smartarse comment it might appear to be, because many in the SA and the NSDAP were avowedly socialist (though they didn’t like the communists, and one of the factors which lead to the Night of the Long Knives in June/July 1934 when a great many of SA leaders were murdered was the growing disenchantment of some in the SA which felt Hitler and his NSDAP had abandoned the socialist underpinnings they favoured.

Der Stahlhelm, in the other hand, was monarchist and backed and funded by industrialists. Here’s another revealing quote from the Wikipedia entry: Although

the Stalhelm was officially a non-party entity and above party politics, after 1929 it took on an open anti-republican and anti-democratic character. Its goals were a German dictatorship, the preparation of a revanchist program, and the direction of local anti-parliamentarian action. For political reasons its members distinguished themselves from the Nazi party (NSDAP) as ‘German Fascists.

When looked it up, I discovered to my surprise the sheer number of Freikorps there were in the Weimar Republic, of which, I suppose, Der Stahlhelm might be regarded as one. Even the saintly socialist party of Germany had its Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold and the communist party, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, had its Rotfrontkämpferbund.

So Onkel August was not who I had so far assumed he was: he was anti-Nazi for all the wrong reasons. My father’s job after World War II was to vet folk who, for example like Rudolf Augstein who found Der Spiegel, Axel Springer, the future newspaper magnate and Henri Nannen, who founded Stern, to see whether they had any kind of Nazi past. So he was surely well aware of Onkel August’s political stance and must surely have known about his previous membership of Der Stahlhelm. On the other hand he most certainly wasn’t a Nazi, and given, as I assume, my father was engaged with organising a potential resistance in West Germany among Germans should the Soviets, as was feared, invade, August Löning’s anti-communist sentiments were most certainly useful. What a strange world it is.

But it’s getting cold (this is, after all, England, and there, dear reader I must end until I next feel called upon to pontificate at length, sorry, write my next blog entry. Good night. (Lord, almost 3,000 words according to the word count. A brief 144-word Twitter synopsis will shortly be available, though there will, sadly, necessarily be no room for jokes.) Oh, and just for the craic, a picture of fishing boats in Ditzum:

. . .

And finally, again just for the craic, another piccy. The woman on the right was German, the woman on the left is one-quarter German and half-Cornish:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Day Three (a little late, so it’s strictly Day Four) at Heinitzpolder

Heinitzpolder Day Four (was going to be Day Three, but hassling around with photos, I forgot to post it.) And it’s a little local exploring of Ostfriesland, first to a little former fishing village to the north of us, now a little tourist village to the north of us called Ditzum. It was pretty empty when we got there today, a not at all sunny

 Monday late morning, but my sister assures me it gets very busy at weekends and in the holiday season.

What is almost immediately obvious is just how clean and tidy it is, but that is not for the sake of tourists and their shekels: this part of Ostfriesland is deeply Calvinist country where cleanliness and the rest are deeply prized and you ignore them at considerable cost. (The Emsland next door to Ostfriesland, where my German grandparents came from, is or was deeply Roman Catholic, though equally neat and tidy. One major difference between the two is that although the good folk of

Ostfriesland, who were Lutheran where they weren’t Calvinist, did drink the occasional beer and Schnapps — or maybe not quite so occasional — their Catholic cousins to the East in the Emsland did so to a greater degree. Then, after establishing beyond all doubt that the shop where one can buy Krabben almost straight off the boat was shut and is shut every Monday, it was onto Leer, one of the local big towns.

After a look around and a pot of tea — the folk hereabouts, unlike more or less the rest of Germany, have tea as their main drink, which this little Englander is very pleased about (I like my tea) — and once I had bought my Fehlfarben cigars (Fehlfarben is the equivalent of seconds — the cigars are exactly the same, but rejected on cosmetic grounds, which brings down the price nicely for what are still very good cigar — it was back here to the Ponderosa to — well, to do absolutely nothing to be honest, and kill time until the Germany v Portugal match tonight at 6pm (local time).

Tomorrow or the next day or even the next it’s off to the Moormuseum which I am looking forward to. It’s just what is says on the tin (an allusion surely lost on anyone not British and/or who hasn’t seen British commercial TV at some point in these past 20 years): it’s a homes and farms as they were 200/300 years ago in this neck of the woods.

That’s enough waffle, so here are a few piccies, none particularly good, and one in particular which could have been taken almost anywhere in the world. But rest assured, it was taken in Ditzum.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Day One of my stay here at Heinitzpolder in which I do very little in the run-up to doing even less, as the sun shines, the birds sing and the landscape is reassuringly flat. And will England, against all odds, prove us wrong? (Er, probably not, at least not against Italy, though they might, perhaps, take Bosnia apart. Trouble is Bosnia are in a separate group. Damn!) And why houses need children

Heinitzpolder Day One

In the grand tradition of a week off, I’ve done little today, which is, though, a little more than I intended. My brother went off with our niece and her boyfriend to check out some builder’s merchant because she wants to buy planks to install some skirting board. Where, when and why she wants to install skirting board I don’t know and as I’m not particularly interested, I didn’t ask.

I was going to go with them and we were going to return via Bunde, the nearest town, well big village really, to get several of the little things we always forget or leave behind (a razor, shaving gel a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodoroant if you’re interested). But I then decided to take off on my own and I’m glad I did. I headed straight to Bunde while they took off in the opposite direction and, I was later told, spent 40 minutes in a motorway jam caused by an accident.

I, on the other hand, didn’t. So I slowly mosied there, enjoying the very flat and very empty Ostfriesland countryside, visited Lidl, then Aldi across the road, then back to Lidl because for some odd reason (and this might well merely be a local quirk of Bunde’s Aldi) its selection of personal grooming products (I think that’s the phrase – ‘hygiene products’ makes it sound as though I have reached the age where I need incontinence pads, which I don’t) was piss-poor to non existent. On the other hand its selection of beers, wines and spirits would put Oddbins to shame.

After leaving Lidl, the items bought – as well as a 70cl bottle of Campari for €10.99 (£8.77 at today’s rate, which is must be great value in any Brit’s book, unless, of course, he our she doesn’t like Camari), a bottle of Brazilian Cachaςa to make caipiriniha for the football later on (oh, don’t be so sniffy, it’s the bloody World Cup, isn’t it, and anyway, I had to look it up, too) and a bottle of ready mixed mojito, it was a slow mosey back to the homestead here, a mile from the nearest small village, several hundred yards from the nearest neighbour and just a quarter of a mile from the Dollart.

The farmhouse is just half a mile from the Dutch frontier. The land around here is all below sea level and was reclaimed from the sea over the years for farming. It might be flat and for some boring (here’s a picture) but I love it, nothing but birds

Flat and gloriously empty

singing, a breeze in the trees, tranquility and the sun shining (plus the internet and World Cup football, of course – mustn’t get too carried away.)

Incidentally, I’ve just found out where the skirting board is being installed. My sister and brother-in-law bought this old farmhouse for his retirement and it is huge, with their own living room, bedrooms and bathrooms, and kitchen at the end here, two self-contained two-bedroom flats upstairs, and then further down the place, towards, the (cavernous but now unused barn) there are several more rooms which are being slowly converted into yet more bedrooms and living space. I shan’t reveal

(The light green bit is not a road but a standing shallow pool covered in algae. I should not admire it too much)

how much it cost my sister and brother-in-law, but it was an absolute bargain. At three times the cost it would have been a steal. I suppose its relative isolation (in European terms, of course) might not be to everyone’s liking, but that I think is as much part of its appeal as everything else.

Today and tomorrow, that nearest small village, Ditzumerverlaat, is staging it’s own East Frisian fete and we are off to sup their beer and take part. The highlight is several rounds of competitive straw bale hurling, and that is not something I have invented.

After that, it’s the football. At this stage it’s impossible to say whether England can beat Italy tonight, but even if they do and on the showing of Brazil and the Netherlands so far, they strike me, even at their best as very much a second-tier national side whatever the national delusion is today. England will be lucky to get through to the second round.

. . .

I’m baffled by England’s ongoing delusion that its national football side is up there with the great. Yes, on a good day, in atrocious conditions, and with a great deal of luck, England can often show the national squads of Bosnia and Morroco who’s the master and who’s not, but as rule they are en embarrassment. The football is pedestrian and unimaginative, and it is always accompanied by us, the punters, wondering how soon they will fuck it all up.

My heart always sinks when they take the lead within 15/20 minutes of the game starting, because invariably that early goal leads to a dull, lifeless game ending in 2-2 with England snatching a draw with a last-gasp 91st minute fluke. The wonder of it is that without doubt England has the most interesting Premier League in the world, consisting of quite a few sides who play entertaining and exciting football. Italy, Spain and Germany, on the other hand, who’s national sides as a rule see off England more often than not, have premier leagues which have two or three outstanding sides competing with a pool of far more mediocre teams. I mean forget Bayern, Real, Barcelona, PSG and Milan and what other sides can folk reading this mention who are known for their football.

Yet on the national stage it all comes apart. Given the the England squad has some excellent world-class players, I don’t doubt that they might win the odd game or two. But invariably and inevitably it is all done in such a dull, dull, dull style. Well, that’s my view, anyway.

. . .

We are sitting (or we were until half-time and I took the opportunity to come next door to write this next utterly fascinating part of this ’ere blog) in the living room of my sistere’s Ostfriesland farmhouse and I was thinking just how nice it was. It’s not as though it is particularly ‘elegant’ – in fact given that they haven’t actually moved in and that the only pieces of furniture are three chairs, a sofa and a TV (with lots of wiring) and Kachelofen, there is not a lot there. But it is welcoming and comfortable and, the point of this bit of the blog – crying out for people.

My sister (from where I sit, i.e. we can all be wrong) is lucky: she has often spoken of this house – house, given the size of it (three-quarters empty barn space) being something of an understatement – as being a place for grandchildren. In that respect she is lucky. She has two daugters and two sons. One daughter got married last year and, I should think, God willing, will in time have children. The second daughter (my godchild) has been seeing the same guy for years (they are both staying for the weekend, too) and I rather hope they, too, will settle for each other and have children together. Then there are my two nephews, and both are going steady and, I assume (this being Germany, he said inelegantly, will also stick togetther. So as far as grandchildren are concerned I trust (and sincerely hope) my sister will be lucky. And that will mean that Heinitzpolder, as the farmhouse is always referred to, will be full whenever at least one person is in residence. The bonus will, of course, be that the noise of that ringing will be children.

Which brings me, again in the horribly convoluted way I have unfortunately made my own, to the point of this part of the entry: houses are made for people, usually people we are close to and love and, at worst, people we at least like. I cannot for the life of me understand why people buy a huge house which remains empty except for those few occasions when they choose to fill them for a party. Just a thought. The last three words of that last paragraph were written several hours, several drinks and a World Cup match after the preceding words. If they don’t make sense, you’ll understand why.

NB Strictly Day Two, but . . . Well, we lost, but I'm glad to say England otherwise proved me wrong. They played well, and did none of that interminable pfaffing around passing game they all too often resort to. The equaliser was great.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Our trip to the Fatherland starts with a very, very boring delay. Read on if you really have nothing better to do. Unfortunately, at present I don't and am at a bloody loose end for the next seven hours. And then there’s ‘bitcoins: what the bloody hell are ‘bitcoins’?

Well, what should have been a joyous occasion, a triumphal entry into Germany via Düsseldorf airport, and then a brief two-hour journey up the motorway to a neck of woods in North-West Germany that is more Dutch than German has become anything but. As I write (there’s bugger all else to do at the moment, as you will realise when you read on) my brother and I are mooching around Gatwick airport doing nothing more exciting the killing time.

We were due to fly out at 6.15 this morning. I had booked all the tickets, booked us into a car partk, checked us in online and printed the boarding passes and we were up by 4 to take off at 4.30 for the one-hour drive from Earls Court where he lives to Gatwick.

So far not one hitch. The first hitch, in retrospect and in the overall scheme of things the briefest of hitches, although it didn’t seem like that at the time, was my brother breezed through security with no bother, but they decided my case needed full investigation. Perhaps they were searching for illegal emigrants, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it delayed us by about 15 minutes and when we hurried through to Gate 45A and arrived with barely five minutes to spare until take-off, Gate 45A was deserted and a distinctly unhelpful easyjet employee (rather pretty, but that cuts no ice under the circumstances) informed us with a complete lack of sympathy that we had missed the flight. I pointed out that the flight wasn’t due to take off for another five minutes, to which she pointed out that the ‘gate closed’ 30 minutes before take-off at 5.45.

That’s, of course, strictly true, but given that no flight in the history of aviation has ever taken off on time and given that a few years ago I similarly arrived late for a flight but as I had only cabin luggage (as we did this time) and was let on with minutes to spare, I feel easyjet might have shown similar consideration. But they didn’t. I didn’t bother bitching and arguing, and given that I can bitch and argue and be rude for Britain if and when I put my mind to it, that was and is notable (and thus duly noted).

There was, to be frank, no point at all and although I don’t mind making a scene if there is a good reason for making a scene – in this case still being allowed on the plane – in this case there was absolutely no chance that would happen. I was also aware that it was wholly my fault, that had I been a little more diligent in planning

A dedicated an award-winning security bod examines one passenger
for a possible bomb and shows how it should be done. It is selfless folk such as him which keep our country safe, but also make people
like me miss our flights

it all, we could easily have left 30 minutes earlier and even with some officious security bod trying to track down in my suitcase what evil folk try to smuggle out of the country when they take off for a quite seven days in the back of the German beyond, we would have made it. So it was back to ‘landside’ – how quaint, but that’s apparently what they call it – to rebook. As it turned out easyjet were able to book us both on the next flight to Düsseldorf, but that doesn’t leave until 3.45 and doesn’t get in until 6. And arriving at 6 on a Friday evening at Düsseldorf will ensure a fun few hours negotiating the Poet’s Day traffic of the Rhineland as we make our way north.

As it was my fault – I didn’t even try to excuse myself but simply apologised to my brother –  I have paid for his new ticket and have also just now bought him a ‘full English’ (he likes them, and although I do, too, I really can’t face any food before lunchtime). It has taken me about 15 minutes to write the above, and it is now 9.25. We have decided to check in as soon as possible so we can go through security (again) and wile away the last few hours exploring the duty free shops and looking at all the stuff which is way to expensive to buy.

Altogether now: Bollocks! But I only have myself to blame.

. . .

It’s long been a staple of attempts at humour for a writer to ramble on about an ‘old fogey like me is too old to learn new technology, ho, ho, ho’. Well, I am most certainly not young, but I like to think I am also not yet an old fogey. And I enjoy new developments in whatever and look forward with real curiosity to what might be around the corner (though it has to be said that 3D mobile printers which allow you to ‘build your own model of the Eiffel Tower’ and that kind of thing do strike me as essentially asinine and just another low attempt to get the punter to part with a few more of his hard-earned shekels). So please believe me that I am not looking for cheap laughs when I confess that the notion of ‘bitcoins’ has so far defeated me.

The odd thing is that there are aspects of it I do undersand. It’s just when I put together all those aspects I somehow lose the plot. I mention ‘bitcoins’ because a recent edition of an always interesting BBC Radio 4 called The Bottom Line hosted by the always engaging Evan Davis was all about bitcoins. I listened intently (and as I was listening to a podcast, I was able to rewind and listen again to those parts I didn’t get my head around the first time, though in this case it didn’t help much.)

For example, I get the idea of credit and thus credit cards. I get the idea of ‘money’, and the fiction behind it that if push comes to shove the Bank of England is obliged to present me with whatever were I to march in and demand they cash in my pounds doesn’t trouble me much, either. I even think, of think I think, I understand ‘quantatative easing’. Well, perhaps on a good day. But bitcoins? Where do they come from? In theory, there can be no leeway for fraud because, according to three guests on The Bottom Line accounts of who has bought what from whom for how many bitcoins are kept on several thousand volunteers’ computers around the world and each of those accounts would have to be amended to enable fraud. To that my response is ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper’. If crooks worldwide smell the chance of an easy buck, you can bet they will find some way of getting at it.

But that doesn’t have much to do with my inability to ‘get’ bitcoins, especially as it – they? – are a software program written by a Japanese guy who prefers to remain anonymous and who might not be one guy at all, but several all under the guise of the one guy.

NB Still at fucking Gatwick but this is being written an hour or two after the first part of this entry.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

I’m not saying ‘I’m humbled’ because that would be a cliché beyond the call of duty even for this tacky blogger. But I’m bloody glad I wasn’t called upon to prove myself. And a certain Sgt Alexander Blackman: how’s about you cast the first stone?

Ok, so I’m a day late and that I didn’t post this yesterday on the anniversary itself is simply down to good intentions ruined by a mind like a sieve. But as the cliché goes ‘better late than never’. (There is, incidentally, an old gay joke I heard years ago which is a pretty obvious play on words which runs ‘better latent than never’, but I can assure folk who might be disturbed that I bat for the same size that I don’t, never have and have never been tempted to. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pass on a silly joke.)

What anniversary, you might be asking yourselves? Well, the anniversary is all I can say, the 70th anniversary of D Day which took place on June 6, 1944. I suspect that you have to get to my age (112 in six months time) to wholly appreciate what took place then, although I like to think that younger folk – that is folk of exactly the age of those who took part, which was around 21 – in their hearts also appreciate the sacrifice of those who took part.

In TV coverage, there was, as is usually the case, total overkill (‘The seagulls are swirling and diving and ducking and weaving over the beaches casting about for some fish or other to swoop down on and devour as surely they did on that momentous day 70 years ago’), but that is, in this case, completely understandable.

The people I felt for were those who took part, who are now – the ones who are still alive – in their late eighties and early nineties. My father took part as young – he was just 21-year-old – company commander, and I remember he once told me that he was supremely conscious that the lives of 30 other men depended upon him making the right decision at the right time. So burden of responsibility for what at my age I still think of as a youth. He never otherwise spoke of the war or what he saw and did, except once when he was dying of the cancer which eventually killed him 22 years ago and told me that after surviving the war in which he saw so many good friends die, every day since then had been a bonus.

I can quite vividly remember that when I was 21 with little on my brain except growing my hair, getting laid as often as possible and finding a little more dope (cannabis, not heroin), even then I was rather jacked off with those of my peers who used to laugh about – ‘sneer at’ wouldn’t be to harsh a description – our father’s generation. Even then I felt it was just a tad unfair. And you can perhaps understand how they, who never had the time, in their salad days, to grow their hair, get laid as often as

A quiet day at the office

possible and try to find as more dope, but were instead engaged on a purpose rather more serious, got rather irritated with us young ones, especially those who wore a military uniform as a fashion item. But then that’s just what it is to be young: silly, thoughtless, self-absorbed and self-important  (I am almost inclined to write that that is the very purpose of being young, just as I get very worried indeed if I come across a child of seven who is not noisy). But rather than condemn my and other generations for being just that, I would prefer simply to wish my father’s generation had been able to avail themselves of the same luxury. But they weren’t.

For them it was quite simple: kill or be killed. And that, I’m sure, tends to focus the mind a little. I shall leave it at that except to ask all of you who are reading this and are of that age simply to do one thing: don’t make a big song and dance about the sacrifice of those men, a great many of them who gave their lives (and a great many of whom might well have died a virgin), just, quietly, in your heart, ask

Crying? At his age? Maybe he’s thinking of all is friends and comrades who didn’t make it to 91 but died 70 years ago

yourselves whether you could - or possibly even would - have made the same sacrifice. I believe that almost all of you could have done, but I sincerely none of you is ever obliged to prove it.

 . . .

Just as I got, even at 21, a little annoyed with those unthinking sorts who made a joke of their fathers (for example, on joke going the roungs in the Sixties was ‘old soldiers never die, they simply smell that way’), I still get bloody annoyed by those who have the gall to criticise soldiers, airmen and sailors for the wars they take part in. No, don’t criticise them, save your anger for the smug, sanctimonious politicians who send them off to war from the safety of their expense account. As it happens, the World War II and the invasion of Europe was a necessary war. A great many others, almost all of them, in fact, aren’t at all necessary. For example World War I.

. . .

Several years ago I came across the admission by a very brave man, and I can’t rememer who, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. ‘Weren’t you afraid?’ he was asked. ‘Of course I was bloody afraid,’ he replied, ‘I was scared shitless.’ And that seems to me the essence of real bravery: men and women don’t do something brave because they are not afraid, they are remarkable because they do something despite being afraid. I rather think when push came to shove I would prove to be not quite as brave.

. . .

Fighting and being a soldier does throw up some horrible situations. A few months ago here in Britain a Royal Marine sergeant, Alexander Blackman, was sentenced to life in prison and must serve a minimum ten years, for ‘executing’ an injured Afghani. He shot him at point-blank range, though at his court martial he claimed he thought the man was already dead. You might think that is a clear case of murder, and you might well be right. Yet Blackman’s action can, perhaps, be explained if not justified. You can read more about Blackman and the case and hearing here, here and for a useful take on life as a soldier here.

You and I, as we sit in our cosy and comfortable homes, with tea, coffee and booze readily to hand, with a flushing loo just a minutes walk away, with a clean bed just a walk away in which to lay our heads when it is time to sleep; you and I whose major dilemma of the day might be whether to meet one set of friends for a drink in the Kings Head or another set in the Prince of Wales; you and I who can switch off the TV if we are getting bored or switch on the TV if we are getting bored; you and I who take for granted the safeties and comforts of modern life might find it difficult to imagine the daily life of someone serving in Afghanistan such as Sgt Blackman.

This was a man who would be chatting inconsequentially to a friend one day and be told the next that his friend had been killed. This is a man who was daily subjected to pressures most of you reading this – although most certainly not all – will never know anything about. This was a man who might well have gone to sleep to the sound of gunfire and woken up to the sound of gunfire. I am not condoning or excusing Sgt Blackman’s actions or even trying to excuse them, I am just trying to give context to what happened and the decision he made to take another man’s life. The dilemma the judges at the court martial faced was: find Sgt Alexander guilty and perhaps do an injustice; or acquit him and perhaps do an injustice. Reflect: what was the last dilemma of that kind you faced?

If I were a christian I might be inclined to quote Jesus Christ. I happen not to be a christian, but I shall still quote Jesus: ‘You who is without sin cast the first stone.’

Good night and God bless. And although I have no idea who that ‘God’ might be and nor, perhaps, do you, I think you might still appreciate the spirit in which I say it.