“It’s your turn to do the loony Des.”
My news editor put the phone down. Reception had a walk-in.
It was my turn, so why fight it? With a sigh I pulled myself away from the screen and headed for the stairs in trepidation.
This rarely went well. I had experienced the full gamut: Young black men covered in cuts and bruises claiming police brutality; irate council tenants complaining that they had waited 3 weeks for their flat to be redecorated; a local businessman trying to get our photographer to cover his business launch. Once I had talked to a man for half an hour, shaken his hand goodbye, only to discover he had some crumbly skin condition he’d been treating with Vaseline. He had left almost of much of himself on my palm as he took away out the door. I felt like I’d arm-wrestled the Singing Detective.
So none of us enjoyed the reception rota.
I pushed the swing doors open and if I wasn’t actually sighing via the traditional route using the respiratory system, there could be no mistaking my body language.
But this day, the man in reception was not what I expected to see at all. Imagine venomous Facebook posts filled with different sized letters and exclamation marks sprayed like bullets. Reception was traditionally occupied with the type of person who now writes these. Obviously the internet was some way off in 1995 but despite panics about social media, there have always been people prepared to shout and holler in the quest to make a dog bag its own litter.
This man however was that dying breed, an old Cockney. He looked for all the world like Clive Dunn playing Grandad. Flat cap, round NHS specs, Alfred Doolittle scarf, worn brown mac.
Hackney is gentrified now but was just beginning that journey then. Many of the Blitz-surviving East Enders had already moved to the whiter climes of Essex. My own father’s family had been in Hackney for 200 years before the Blitz saw them evacuated out. So for all kinds of reasons, I loved the lesser-spotted Old Cockney. I just rarely saw them in Hackney anymore.
For reasons that will become clear, I no longer remember the man’s surname, so go with me on this one. I want to start authentically, and that means I have to greet him like a GP at 5.30pm realising he still has 5 patients to go.
He nodded and put out his hand. I took it but something was missing. Half a middle finger to be exact. We shook but the empty space made the sensation as unfamiliar as a mistakenly-given Masonic handshake.
“I’m Des, one of the reporters. How can I help?”
He was quiet. He couldn’t look me in the eye.
“I’m Jack. I…well…was just wondering if you are doing anything for the VE Day celebrations?”
Now that was a question. Hackney was beginning to gentrify and in a way so were its reporters. But not all of them and the fight between looking back and looking forward defined my time on the Hackney Gazette.
My news editor was brilliant but would insist on trying to write punning headlines based on Roll Out the Barrel, Daisy, Daisy, jellied eels, Cor Blimey Guv. You name a Cockney cliché, we had a headline based on it somewhere in our archive.
With the word “Cockney” tattooed on the back of our necks, of course we were going to cover the 50th anniversary of D Day celebrations. I had already spent some time talking to one of Hackney’s dozen or so surviving D-Day vets, Captain Norman Morgan. I often enjoyed having a pint with him and talking about his experiences.
He had arranged for me to meet some of the others at the M.O.T.H.s Club in Valette Street. Earlier this year Lady GaGa launched her new single there. It has been saved from closure and turned into a small indie venue. Back in 1995 it was still a thriving old-school working man’s club affair – albeit one with a Sten gun out back and war memorabilia all over the walls. It was the base of the Memorable Order of Tin Hats. Moth Club for short.
“Yes of course we are covering it. I’ve been over to see Norman Morgan and I’m….”
Jack cut me off. “Ok bye then.” He headed for the door.
OK us local reporters could dread the call downstairs but we didn’t let go that easy once we were down there.
“Mr Smith wait a second. Can I ask a question? Are you a Normandy Vet yourself?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. If you’re speaking to Captain Morgan that’s fine.” He made another stab at getting out the door but failed.
“Come sit down please.”
I’ve never been in the army and I have a terrible record respecting arbitrary authority, but I could recognise fear when I saw it.
“We are interested in everyone’s story. There aren’t that many of you left. I’m only going to see Norman because he’s our contact. When I get there I want to meet all of you.” But this was one soldier who would not stand at ease.
“Capt Morgan won’t like it. All I wanted to do is check.” He looked glum.
“May I ask something? Your finger. I couldn’t help notice. Does this have anything to do with those times. Sorry if I’m being insensitive asking.”
Jack looked down. He looked up. He looked down again.
“I’ll tell you if you promise not to put it in the Gazette?”
I agreed reluctantly. He then went on to tell me a story that has crossed my mind many hundreds of times since.
Jack was one of the lucky ones who got through the actual landings unscathed. No mean feat. Captain Morgan, who met Spielberg during the making of Saving Private Ryan a couple of years later, told me the harrowing 20 minute landing sequence at the beginning of that film captured the carnage of the landings perfectly.
A few days after his landing, Jack was part of an advance scouting party, sent forward into enemy lines to clear the way for the advancing Allied troops. In effect, he was a canary in the coalmine. It was obviously dangerous work. The worst happened and Jack’s outfit was fatally ambushed by machine gun fire.
He told me that everyone around him fell down dead or dying. He ended up on the floor too but had not been hit.
Some German soldiers came out and began simultaneously rifling through the dead and dying’s belongings and putting pistol bullets into everyone.
Hardly daring to breathe, Jack lay there waiting to be killed. How it happened he never got to find out, but a bullet crashed into his hand destroying his middle finger. He didn’t scream, he didn’t move, he just lay there in agony, playing dead.
A merciful few mintues later, the Germans heard the rumble of the Allied vehicles and fled.
We didn’t go into details but I imagine he started screaming then and only then.
As promised I never published this story in the Gazette. I never got to fact check it but I have never doubted its truth. It took me a while to understand Jack though.
He was a hero in my eyes for being there in the first place and for braving it out under unimaginably terrifying circumstances. Playing dead meant he also got to play alive and come back and be a husband, father and maybe grandfather to others. But to himself he was the biggest coward of them all. What had he done to protect his friends? Why hadn’t he stood up and fought back? He had been destroyed by the ambush eventually as surely as if the bullet had hit him in the chest.
Over the coming weeks I spent a lot of time with the Vets, including one memorable gathering at a working men’s club in Bethnal Green.
I sat with these extraordinary men and women and shared a pint as they swapped stories, sang songs and even flirted with each other a bit.
Captain Morgan stood up and proposed a toast to absent friends and in the tingling silence that followed, I learnt for the first time the power of that traditional toast.
It’s easy to talk about sacrifice but these men and women really did have no choice but to make them. Friends, brothers, fathers, husbands, wives – all perished in probably the only war I can think of that had to be fought.
World War 1? Political mass murder. Vietnam? Superpower posturing. Iraq? Revenge. World War II? The actual invasion force was actually staring at us through binoculars 22 miles across the Channel. France and the other Western European countries were already occupied. It was a fight forced upon people. As a teenager I described myself as a pacifist, but as an older, wiser man I know I would have fought the Nazis.
Those in Hackney suffered twice. They contributed soldiers and nurses but also bore the brunt of the Blitz. Ironically, the first ever bomb dropped on England was also in Hackney during World War 1 when a bomb was dropped by airship on Stoke Newington.
50 years later we were gathered to remember those that had made the ultimate sacrifice. That night, everyone with bowed heads, thought of those who never made it home. I imagined them. My vets remembered them. A big difference that excused much of what I’m about to relate.
Later that night, I sat with a wonderful old English gentleman. He may have been from Bethnal Green but his RP English and clipped Dambusters moustache gave away his pretensions.
We shared a pint. He told me a few stories. And then he shocked me.
“I’m going to vote for the BNP at the next election,” he said.
I spat my beer out.
“Er…they are Fascists…” I suggested. I may even have pulled a face and shrugged a shoulder, gesturing to the rest of the room in an ”er…what do you think your fight was all about?” kind-of-way.
I listened. It turned out World War II wasn’t about fighting Fascism at all. It was about protecting your own culture which was now being eradicated.
All the Vets felt betrayed by the system that demanded their sacrifice but gave them little in return. They were the ones who lived in the depleted, damp, central heating-free, Dickensian housing stock, that had to be rebuilt slowly brick-by-brick.
Their main gripe seemed to be the influx of Commonwealth immigrants that began within 10 years of the war ending. In many cases they were being given better homes than those already here.
I wouldn’t lose one person from London’s current ethnic make-up. I love it. But these soldiers and widows shook me.
I had never considered their perspective before. It’s not surprising in retrospect that the first wave of immigrants into London did not receive the best of welcomes. The left wing councils of London were so determined to do the right thing by the newcomers they forgot to do the right thing by the people who were already here. It needed a lighter touch than our institutions were capable of at the time. But you can’t turn the clock back, however much this room of veterans would have liked it to be.
I realised that day that it’s possible to understand and disagree at the same time and my politics have been a hazy shade of grey ever since.
The climax of the 1995 celebrations was a wonderful concert in Hyde Park. I covered it for the Daily Mirror and the Gazette.
I wandered the grounds of the park and listened to the concert. I have no recollection of who performed that day, except for the headliner: Dame Vera Lynn.
I’ve always loved the popular songs of the 20-40s. One of my favourites was (and is) Vera’s version of We’ll Meet Again. It’s such a cliché of a song that it’s hard to go back to it and try and smell, taste and hear it as its original audience did.
But imagine saying goodbye to your husband as he heads for who knows what horrors at the Front. You have no idea if he’s coming back. Several of your friends have died fighting already. Some of your neighbours have died during air raids. Even if he survives, what are your chances when he comes home traumatised or wounded? That generation already had 20 years of dealing with fathers and grandfathers who had survived the Somme never to be the same again. The terror must have been all-encompassing.
Along comes this perfect song that sums up that feeling of hopelessness set against wistful hope.
As a pianist, when I play it, it brings a lump to my throat. It’s a miracle of construction with the chords following the melody on an almost 1:1 ratio. There’s no bit where you can paddle away on a single chord and keep the melody.
Vera was a very British Goddess. If I met the young version of her I would not fancy her in the least. But she could definitely sing and I’m not surprised she was dubbed the Forces’ Sweetheart.
That day in Hyde Park was the last time she sang in public. She made the most of her swansong singing beautifully – White Cliffs of Dover, We’ll Meet Again etc.
It was one of the most incredible musical experiences of my life. I shivered from head to toe and wiped away the tears.
But in Hyde Park that day, I was also enjoying the company of my D-Day Veterans one last time too. The connection between us was only brief – enough to get through the coverage of the D-Day celebrations. It was quite clear that they had a group mentality that distrusted outsiders, particularly young people who “didn’t understand.” Dame Vera sang it, but I knew the opposite was true – and I was right – that we would never meet again.