GETTING THE WAR STRAIGHT
I was born at the tail-end of World War Two, the one that came after The War to End All Wars. 1944/5 were the very worst years in terms of death and atrocities – the March 1944 invasion of Hungary with mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to camps in German-occupied Poland, August 1945 atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, panic killings in the camps in 1945 as the allies marched in to liberate the survivors, a phenomenal number of revenge rapes on girls and women as the many wars engendered by the war on Germany came to closure. I knew none of it then, was merely born into it as it was happening, absorbing the aftershock through my early childhood as the adults around me learned of the horrors; taking it as normal the way I thought it normal to see children playing in the rubble of bomb-sites around Manchester.
The fog that shrouded Britain began tapering off after the Great Smog that blanketed London for five days in December 1952, killing more than 12,000 people and hospitalizing 150,000. This led to the 1956 Clean Air Act, restricting the burning of coal in urban UK. But another kind of fog surrounded me – my vague notions about WW2 and my father’s involvement with it.
Knowledge of my absent father was gleaned from odd feelings and intuitions picked up randomly from pursed-lipped, shifty-eyed, whispering adults. There was a tremendous weight of sadness in our house. Daddy was a taboo topic. He might as well have been dead for all I knew of him. Ironically, he was not directly involved in the war. As a loyal member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, he had been interned throughout the war in various prisons, ending up on the Isle of Man with thousands of other men, and some women – concentrated in camps, in detention without trial. I knew none of this as a child. All I knew was that he was the source of my mother’s chronic anger and unhappiness. I learned, like my older siblings, not to breathe a word about him.
Much later, as an emigrant in Toronto in my 40s, I began talking hesitantly about my mysterious father. ‘He’s the main thing in your life,’ a wise friend said. ‘But I didn’t know him,’ I protested. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ she said, ‘He’s your legacy. It’s not great, but that’s what you’ve been given. Pay attention to it.’
From within my foggy perception concerning anything remotely political, red-flagged by my mother, I was unsure of what his involvement with Mosley had meant. Nevertheless, my feelings of shame and personal guilt in regard to any mention of my father were strong enough to close me down for many years.
It’s been a long journey. When I finally risked telling the story again at a friend’s dinner party, I remember sweating, my stomach fluttering, difficulty in speaking. With each telling it became easier. Then, with the advent of the internet, I began researching my father’s life, researching the war, trying to get it straight – the trajectory from two nations declaring war on each other to a global scale, full-blown, out-of-control madness.
The final steps took eight years – writing my way through the fogbound minefield of our family’s wartime experience and the legacy of it, guided by instinct through a lifelong confusion, and out of it, into the clear. I have completed what feels like my life’s mission. I was the one in our family charged with the task, the one who puzzled over it, who ran all the emotions, my own and my mother’s, and my siblings’ grief over our absent father.
‘Why are you always harping on the past?’ my mother would ask. What else was there? I couldn’t move forward, hobbled as I was with secrets and silences. I had tried, but failed every time. Now that I have a reasonable understanding of that sprawling war, though far from comprehensive, I no longer feel hostage to the massive and mysterious web of events set in motion by old men in smoke-filled rooms smelling of port and brandy, as they stumbled and slurred their way towards decisions that affected us all, for generations.
During my childhood Grandpa was the authority. It was my mother’s love for him that made him so, just as the pain of my fathers’ betrayal configured him. My mother was the undoubted authority in my life, though in Mad Hatter, this novel in my hands as I emerge from the fog, I have made Grandpa an authority, and my mother emerges as a victim of circumstance.
I spent much of my childhood in the car with my mother, driving around in the devastation that was England in the 1950s. We were often fog-bound, creeping forward by the light of her car’s fog-lamps – two blooms of orange on the jaundiced blanket that enfolded us. Grey-coated figures scurried by like rats surprised in a dark cellar. Everything was muffled.
Our motoring time was a chance for Mum to teach me the Lord’s prayer … Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven … I thought she was handing me a clue, a veiled reference to my father, and that he would return some day, leaving his Heaven to join us on earth.
Watch for Mad Hatter, published by Guernica Editions, released in Canada and UK September 2019, a novel based on the life of the author’s family in WW2 England.