Friday, April 24, 2009

How I Came To Be English

My mum told me a story about my grandad. They lived in the town of Birr, in County Offaly, Ireland.
When my grandad was young, this would be in the beginning years of the 20th Century, he went out with some of the other young men to cut down a tree in the forest. While they were there an accident happened with the axe and my grandad cut his hand badly.
The other lads bound up the bloody hand with a cloth and left my grandad propped against a tree with a bottle of whisky while they went into town to fetch a doctor. My mum said my grandad always told it this way: While he was leaning against that tree with massive blood loss and pouring a bottle of whisky down his throat all the little people, the leprechauns, came out to dance in a ring, right in front of his eyes.
The interesting thing to me about this is that the story still delights the imagination, in spite of the fact that seeing visions in those circumstances is pretty unsurprising. It's still a good story. Well, I like it anyway.

After that my grandad recovered and, eventually, was called up to fight in the First World War, the Great War, the war to end all wars.
He got caught by a mustard gas attack and became a permanent invalid. My mother nursed him throughout the rest of his life.
My mother went to a catholic school where the nuns would beat her with a stick for such trivial offenses as spelling mistakes.
She once got her hand caught in a hand-cranked machine for chopping meat. She didn't lose any fingers but she talked of the horror of the incident throughout her life.

My father was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in the year 1904. He was only 10 years of age when the Great War broke out and 12 years old when the USA joined the war. He was 20 in 1924 and there is a photo of him looking smart and handsome in a good quality 1920s suit. He looks like an actor in a gangster movie.
My dad could remember the days of prohibition and Americans coming over the border to buy booze. Travelling any distance necessary to get a taste of the hard stuff. He remembered the days of alcohol being smuggled back into America in the running-board of the car.

It wasn't easy to get my dad to talk about his past but he did reminisce sometimes in a vague and dreamy way. I do know that during the depression era of the 1930s he travelled across North America like a hobo, hopping freight trains, searching for a chance of work. And he found work of various kinds including logging, lumberjacking and that sort of thing. He also worked in roadside diners and hash houses as a short order cook.

He met my mother in England. She had come over along with her brothers who had wanted to get into the war against Hitler and had come over the water from Ireland and joined up in the RAF. My dad arrived in England as a sailor in the Canadian merchant navy.

In fact dad was below decks as a boiler stoker on a ship called the Europa which had been a Danish ship until the Nazis invaded Denmark and then, since the Europa was in Canada at the time she was claimed by the Canadian government for the war effort. The Europa sailed to Greenock, Scotland in November of 1940 with a large number of Canadian troops on board. They disembarked at Greenock and the ship sailed to Liverpool in December. My dad was in Liverpool in December 1940 when the Europa was bombed by the Luftwaffe and subsequently drydocked. During the next three months the ship was bombed again and again until she was beyond repair. My dad, with no ship to return to, was in Liverpool during wartime, in civilian clothes and at a loose end. One day a woman on street corner, handing out white feathers to men in civvies, gave a verbal insult and handed one of these symbols of cowardice to my dad, who promptly hit her. She called a policeman. My dad explained who he was, which ship he was with, his journey across the Atlantic dodging submarines, the bringing of the Canadian Army to Scotland, the bombing of his ship and, finally, the handing to him of the white feather.

Well, he got off with a caution but he was pretty upset about it and went off to join the Canadian Army himself, to get into a uniform and avoid any further accusations of cowardice.

So he went from being sailor to being soldier and from boiler stoker to cook. All his old short order cook skills were put to work by the 48th Highlanders regiment. They were proud to be Scottish Canadians, wearing kilts and playing bagpipes. Dad actually wanted to be a paratroop but was disqualified from that because he was missing part of a finger and part of a thumb. This was the result of a bloody accident back home in Canada, lumberjacking. I don't know why there's this weird theme of hand injuries connecting the lives of my dad, my mum and my granddad. There just is.

The Highlanders were posted to Aldershot, my dad met my mum, the regiment took part in the liberation of Italy, the war ended, my parents made a home in England and I was born there in 1953.

And that's how I came to be English.

(copyright Peter-David Smith, Exeter, Devon 2009)

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