PC 138 Remembrance – Another time and another place

In case you’ve been on Planet Zog and missed its significance, November 2018 was one hundred years after The Great War ended, at that 11th hour on that 11th day of that 11th month. They waited for five hours after a ceasefire was agreed, they waited for a nice tidy numerical sequence of hour, day and month; meanwhile hundreds died, for a political gesture! (See PS) Much has been made, rightly so, of the immense sacrifice of life, both military and civilian, that four years of conflict had witnessed. The war to end all wars; until we went to war again 21 years later.

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The simply poppy has become synonymous with remembrance in the UK

Now we will remember them. We read about both heroic and pointless sacrifice, of simply ‘doing your duty’, of man’s inhumanity to his fellow humans, and shudder. My maternal grandmother’s eldest brother Dudley Corbett, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, died a month after the end of the war from a war-related illness; he was 37.

In amongst memorabilia handed down, from whom I am not sure (!), I have this metal shaving mirror in a leather pouch, from Merchant Taylors’ School Club dated Christmas 1915 and wishing its recipient ‘Good Luck’, and think of that hugely optimistic cry ‘It’ll all be over by Christmas’, and that was in 1914!

Merchant Taylors

In Germany, this year’s 100th anniversary is not being commemorated in the same way. Instead of looking back, they are looking forward to this time next year when they will remember the thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down, paving the way for reunification a year later. You may recall the dividing of the then East German city Berlin by a hideous concrete block wall, and the fortification of the long land border between East and West, the Inner German Border (IGB). Stationed in Lippstadt, West Germany, in 1973, I took a patrol along the British sector of the IGB, accompanied by a member of the British Frontier Service. These ‘civilian’ guides monitored the border along the southern sector of the British zone from Lauenburg to Schmidekopf. They wore a uniform rather Naval in appearance, white topped cap and fawn duffle coat, and the chap who was with us as we watched the East German Border Guards, and were watched in return, was a mine of information. My week-long patrol was accompanied by a Second Lieutenant from some Guards battalion; we shared accommodation in barns and farmhouses – on the first morning he exclaimed: “Drat! My batman hasn’t packed my shaving kit!” I didn’t have a batman and packed my own stuff so wasn’t too sympathetic!

Memories from my five years in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) could fill many PCs. Some immediately come to mind and others require more than a nanosecond:

The ubiquitous roadside snack bar (Schnellimbiss) that served a long sausage drenched in a hot sauce (currywurst mit pom frits) on a cardboard tray that only just took the weight. When you were hungry, this was manna from heaven.

Two regiments, my Royal Artillery one and one Royal Signals, were housed in a large barracks. On the gate was a soldier with a rifle. No one realised that the ammunition was kept under lock and key inside the guardhouse; couldn’t trust the squaddie with live ammunition!! Until the Baader-Meinhof Gang started causing mayhem; alert states went up and the ammunition went into the rifle’s magazine!

I have fond memories of food! If we were out of barracks on some form of training, but not on a tactical exercise, we relied on the BQMS to provide meals from his 3 ton kitchen truck. The alternative was to have our own tinned rations and do it ourselves; the first option was always the best. Breakfast: great noisy gas blowers shot flames under the large dixies of water; on top flat trays cooked greasy fried eggs, fried bread (yum yum), bacon rashers, mushrooms and tinned tomatoes. It was alright if it was dry, but if it was raining water somehow got into the mess tin and turned the tomatoes into soup.

Married officers lived on The Patch; if you were under 25 you had to get permission to get married, as well as find someone who would have you of course!

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Self-propelled guns, armoured vehicles and supply trucks lined up after some large-scale exercise in 1974.

We trained and practised our profession. The cycle hadn’t changed much since Wellington’s time; individual training at the beginning of the year then section, platoon, company and regimental. Not until the autumn did we link up with other units in huge divisional exercises across the north German plains. And as the combined weight of the USSR and Warsaw Pact would have squashed us easily, we practised going backwards (we didn’t talk about retreating, just going backwards or a fighting withdrawal!); hopefully this would have given the politicians time, someone would authorise the use of a tactical nuclear weapon and everything would stop. Fortunately we never had to put these plans to the test.

We drank. The BAOR enjoyed Duty Free status and that applied to everything from cars to alcohol and petrol. When we were in barracks, as a single officer the temptation to drink at lunchtime, drink before dinner, with dinner and after dinner, was immense; there was no television.  (See PC 15) If the Russians wanted to invade western Europe, Christmas was definitely the best time as everyone walked around in an alcoholic haze!

In addition to our professional training, we undertook adventurous training of all sorts. For me this focused on offshore sailing in The Baltic (see PC 106); delightful and memorable experiences.

Our experiences in life are what shape us, and understanding their importance and their influence is essential. We can’t change those experiences but we can keep their memories in perspective, as we live today and move into tomorrow.

 

Richard 30th November 2018

PS Rather like the Japanese found on some remote island a year after the Second World War had ended, news of the Armistice took days to reach those in conflict in Africa. It wasn’t until 25th November 1918 that German forces in East Africa surrendered and 100 years on services of remembrance took place in Kenya and Zambia.

PC 137 Other ideas and musings

My last postcard was going to mention allergies, to add to the gender and mental health issues that seem to be hot topics in this second decade of the C21st; I ran out of space but didn’t want my thoughts to be solely inward focused.

When I grew up it seemed no one had allergies – or if they had they had died because they were allergic to something and no one knew. Now we are very much aware of how individuals can be agin some aspects of life, mainly food. Nuts are often the main culprit. Recently there’s been an inquest on the death of a teenager who had bought a baguette from Pret a Manger. She was allergic to sesame seeds; the wrapper did not mention these specifically, in fact they were part of the bread mix and now every manufacturer is rushing to ensure every ingredient is mentioned. Wise after the event huh!

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Sharwood’s Green Label Mango Chutney – ‘may contain nuts’

Some time ago I saw a packet of, I don’t know, Trebor’s Extra Strong Mints; I am making this up but somewhere on the wrapper it said ‘didn’t contain nuts’! What a pickle we’re getting into; a band wagon has started rolling and everyone wants to jump onto it; a badge to wear, part of our C21st life. I sympathise with those who truly are allergic as I’m fortunately not ‘allergic’ to anything, not a Hay Fever sufferer, not allergic to dust mites, insect bites, latex, food which includes eggs, cow’s milk, nuts or shellfish. Celina is allergic to the last item; fortunately she found out with a very allergic reaction many years ago so carries an Epipen and asks about cross-contamination in the kitchens of seafood restaurants. Anaphylactic shock, in extreme cases, can be life threatening.

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Using language and sayings that have arisen as part of our culture and history are what defines us, us British. Other nations have their own repartee, slang and ways of relating. But in this globalizing interconnected world anything and everything particular is under the judgmental microscope; some are necessary, for sure, but some are simply aimed at creating a bland environment devoid of colour. (Whoops! You see! I write the word ‘colour’ and think ‘have I written something racist?’)  For example, in English we have used the saying ‘Whiter than white’, to mean ‘absolutely pure’ in a moral sense, morally beyond reproach, since the early 1900s. Historically of course the forces of Good and Evil are often represented as white and black. Then Persil started claiming that using their washing powder would produce white clothing ‘whiter than white’. But in September a detective superintendent used the phrase in some briefing, about the need to be faultless and above reproach in carrying out inquiries. ‘Someone’ complained, and the detective’s been referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct for ‘poor use of language’. How come? No newspaper reported what the complainant had said. If I assume that it was thought he was using the phrase in a racist sense (?) then that’s stretching imagination beyond Young’s Modulus! Outrageous! But sadly no one really got on the soapbox and put the Thought Police back in their box. It seems to me a little like the suggestion, currently being seriously discussed here in the UK, that misogyny and misandry should be criminalised. So now if we think something offensive, that’s enough to be fined or even sent to prison? How effing ridiculous! (See PS)

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George Street Hove with local people doing their thing

 Are we becoming oversensitive … to everything? I feel we have become ultrasensitive to perceived slights, are quick to judge and quicker to turn to anger. When I walk down George Street, people come into and out of my vision. I might notice one individual more than another, just for a millisecond. I might even make some judgement about the way they look, their manner, their ‘air’, their sense of purpose, but it’s a fleeting thought and doesn’t linger; other thoughts quickly take its place. My glance could be interpreted as homophobic, misogynistic, misandry, anti-obese, racist, sexist etc but it’s only in my head. But then what we think determines how we feel and consequently how we act; it’s the latter that sometimes gets us into trouble!

The rollercoaster of our lives continues, exciting, challenging; for example, for the last six months we have been practising Yin yoga. In addition to our daily hot yoga obsession, once a week we do the complete opposite. Whereas hot yoga is all about using your muscles to try to obtain certain postures, a Yang activity, Yin yoga is practised on the floor, adjusting your limbs into a certain posture and then staying in it for 5 minutes or more, without using muscles to maintain it. Practising Yin is like applying WD40 (see note) to your ligaments, tendons, joints, cartilage, fascia and other connective tissue. After the first session I didn’t feel anything – until the next day. Wow!

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This got me thinking about the Yin and Yang of our lives, living this rollercoaster; playing safe here, chancing our arm there, hanging on! An analogy that occurred to me is being like pebbles on a beach (for those of you who only know beaches of sand, come to Hove!). The sea washes the pebbles, sometimes gently, sometimes with such force that they are drawn back into the waves, or thrown violently up into the air, to land in a different place, in a different time. And the rhythm of the tides means that for some periods they’re completely submerged and at other times high and dry, basking in the sun. Some will crumble with the continuity of movements, becoming grains of sand, other pebbles will resist. But these inanimate objects of nature can’t think, can’t move of their own accord, can’t reason; we can and we should. So I scribbled some contrasting experiences you may have had or may yet discover:

Becoming a parent, a unique experience; losing one – not a unique experience.

Falling in love (again) and again .. and falling out of love, that deadening realisation that it’s over

Going for the first job interview and being chosen; being told you are no longer wanted, are redundant and rationalising it’s the role and not you.

Becoming a grandparent and holding the little mite, knowing your own DNA is in there somewhere.

Travelling somewhere exotic and seeing the mundane of where you live on your return.

Getting to the end of a book and wondering how you struggled to finish it, or wanting to have yet more pages after ‘The End’, such was the gripping, imaginative tale.

Going to university; attaining that special qualification.

Walking the dog, having a dog in the first place; and then that awful decision about end of life.

Being told you have some form of cancer; being told you’re in remission.

Buying your first shed/flat/house or your second one and borrowing beyond your ‘maximum’; paying off your mortgage.

Worrying about the quality of the politicians and realising there isn’t much you can do except vote them out next time around.

Making friends and losing them when you divorce, move!

Writing your first story in some lonely café; when the bills are piling up.

Walking for miles across the country, grateful for your waterproof boots; clearly for not being on a wheelchair.

Whistling when sailing, when there’s no wind and your sails flap, as folklore suggests you’ll get more than you wanted; then an hour later wishing you hadn’t whistled as the wind howls in the rigging and you hang on!

Let go and go with the flow.

Richard 15th November 2018

Note WD40 Actually named after ‘water displacement 40th formula’ from 1953 – prevents corrosion by displacing the water molecule, eases joints, and loosens nuts and bolts. An essential aid in any household.

PS The Times columnist Giles Coren reported on Tuesday that a 69 year old lady, Jane Savidge, had been reported to the police for sounding her car horn on a garage forecourt, in an effort to get the car in front to move. The driver of the car in front was coloured and Savidge was charged with a Racially Aggravated Public Order Offence. I wish this was ‘Fake News’ because if it’s an actual fact, God help us.

 

PC 136 Hot Topic Scribbles – Gender and Mental Health

I am probably quite blinkered in my views about certain things …… get concerned about how some aspects of our society, western society, global ….. are trending (See! I can pick up on the modern use of some words, so not too stuck in the mud!) ….. but it’s got to a point when I have to say something! ‘For fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ ……. or something like that.

The words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are often interchangeable, but after 1955 the word gender took on a different meaning, as in “The state of being male or female, typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones.” or “describing someone’s personality, character and behaviour’.

I was born male! It says so on my birth certificate and once I had attended a few biology lessons I realised there was a physical difference between the genders. We had talks from a ‘sexpert’ about the ‘birds and the bees’ – such a funny choice of animals to explain human reproduction! Fumbling around with a female friend at the age of 6 or 7, the sort of ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ experience under some bush, I found out that she didn’t have the same appendage as me; in fact none! Weird! Ah! The innocence of one’s youth. Then I learned that in the animal and plant kingdoms there are alternatives, particularly neuter and, I am not sure of the gender terminology here, those living organisms that have both sexes ….. ah! Yes! Asexual. So we learned that there was a male gender and a female gender and in the human species both were needed to procreate, not for sex though, but to reproduce themselves. But now I am made aware of a new gender; ‘Trans’.

They have always been around, this ‘Trans’ group, but now we are more accepting and willing to help these individuals who believe they are ‘male’ in a female body or ‘female’ in a male body … or transiting from one to the other. That’s OK isn’t it?  …… but the issue raises complicated questions in areas such as sport segregated by gender and in the provision of safe women-only spaces. Bending over backwards to please everyone, however different they are from the societal norm, just isn’t practically possible. The current law requires a medical diagnosis, proof that they have been legally living in their new gender for at least two years and a gender recognition certificate. In the US the move is in the other direction, to enshrine the male and female gender in the constitution, reversing the liberal trends of the previous President Barack Obama. I think I am with Trump on this one. Gender has become a political issue when simple me thought it was, and should be, purely biological!

The words ‘mental health’ seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment. Our Princes William and Harry are pushing this topic, as is the British Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes, who’s raising awareness of ‘mental health’ in her ‘It’s OK not to be OK’ campaign. Everyone has, at last (?), woken up to this new crisis, this affliction. It is certainly an area of our overall health that has been overlooked, wasn’t talked about, relying on the ‘Stiff upper lip, Carruthers; what!’ so the acknowledgement of the issue is a huge step in the right direction. Of course an increase in people seeking help from their doctor could mean more are experiencing problems, or simply that we feel more comfortable in asking for support; I hope the latter. My concern is that the GP will too easily prescribe drugs rather than offering the alternative range of treatments which include more longer-lasting remedies such as talking therapy and self-care techniques such as exercise.

I acknowledge that the world of the C21st century is very different from that in which I grew up, but isn’t it simply challenging in a different way? My name isn’t Carruthers but at school I suffered from divorced parents, felt abandoned in a boarding school; bad memories of bedwetting, parental interventions and hushed meetings that didn’t include me! My time at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst changed me for sure; put simply, we had to bond with someone else to create a team environment, looking out for each other and gaining emotional strength from that bond. We were tested, often to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, but came to realise it made us mentally stronger. The Sergeant Major, his face sweaty and red from the horror of some drill infringement you had just committed, inches from yours, screaming “You ‘orrible little sh*t, Sir! (a lovely nod to the fact we were training to be officers!). If you don’t get on with this I’ll shove my pacestick (see note) up where the sun don’t shine ……. and if you continue to think this is a joke I’ll open it out 30 inches, sah!”. You take it on the chin, wonder whether he enjoyed his garlic evident from last night’s supper, and move on – stronger. On some other exercise, designed to push us to our limits, and beyond, we were on our second December night out on the Brecon Beacons in South Wales and hadn’t slept. Yomping up one hill and down the other side, in the dark, ticking the sheet at a checkpoint, and off to another. The mind plays tricks and I remember seeing the full moon and swore to God there was a ship sailing across its face!!

Later at the end of my first marriage I went through that ‘what’s the point; is it worth it?’ sort of internal dialogue. But the conclusion was that it was worth continuing this life; for life is to be lived and you need to be robust mentally.

Ignoring those who have suffered trauma, for they need and deserve all the help we can provide, I am concerned for those younger members of our society who have been sucked into the modern ‘I want to be famous and I want to be famous NOW’. I might think it vacuous and stupid and sad but the subsequent disappointing realisation that life isn’t like that could drive them to self- harm and depression. So doesn’t it worry anyone that we seem more and more fixated on providing support for those who are depressed, are mentally weak, however temporarily, rather than engaging in positive schemes to improve the robustness of our society?

On the day of my recent birthday the quotation in the yoga studio was very serendipitous: “Happiness involves taking part in the game of life, not standing on the edge of things and frowning.” Mental Health was a minority issue that has moved mainstream; failure to address it properly will have major consequences for the nation.

 

 

Richard 3rd November 2018

 

Note The ‘Pacestick’ was rather like a large pair of wooden dividers, about 30 inches (85cms) long. Infantry Drill Instructors used it to measure the length of the marching pace, from left foot to right foot, to ensure uniformity. They had a wonderful knack of swinging it through 180º as they ‘marched’ …… or offering to put it where the sun doesn’t shine!!