Friday, September 19, 2014

A post-Referendum letter to the 45%

I'm writing this at the end of the kind of grey day I yesterday remembered from the '80s. It's hard for me to feel the optimism expressed by some communicators, and as I hear the news of Alex Salmond's stepping down from his leadership post I feel a deepening of the gloom even as I recognise that in his position I would do exactly the same.

But I'm writing now to the 45% who voted for a different Scotland. A little digging shows that what I sensed throughout the campaign was true: most of you are much younger than I am. So I'd like first to apologise for my generation, for our failure of nerve and of the imagination; for our fears about our pensions and our East Enders; for our unwillingness to listen and to read enough.

And then I'd like to charge you, all you of the 45% who are between the ages of 25 and 55, not to grow to be like the 73% of NO voters who are in my age group. Don't ever settle down inside your head, don't ever mentally don a white cardigan or a sensible skirt or a pair of tartan carpet slippers. Don't ever think that all life holds is a straitened existence in which you hold onto the past and condemn future generations to what they now find acceptable. Never allow yourselves to think that because you're no longer in daily, paid employment all you are fit for is to go for your morning paper or speak increasingly in pious platitudes and meaningless, safe clichés. If you have a mind now, you will - death or Alzheimer's permitting - have a life then. You will have more time to inform yourself about the world than you ever enjoyed when you were running after kids or working in full-time employment. You are currently, I imagine, au fait with Facebook and other social media. By the time you are my age there will be other forms of engagement available - learn to use them. 

So once more, I say I'm sorry. Sorry that my co-aevals lacked your vision and paid no attention to what you wanted. Sorry that we are the selfish and blinkered generation we turned out to be. Sorry that we were fearful, sorry that we were ignorant, sorry that we claim proudly to have no truck with social media, sorry that we didn't engage with you. 

We are not all like that, and I am one of the 27% of over-65s who voted YES. I'm still up for a fight, and I can see one looming as the Westminster machine starts coming apart. But it will now be in your lifetimes, not mine, that we will see off the idea that it is better to spend on our children what we currently spend on nuclear weapons, better to shape our own destiny than be allowed scraps from the Westminster table. 

Don't lose heart. Don't shut down the vision. And don't ever grow old inside your heads.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I voted YES because ...

By the time I have finished writing this post, the polls will have closed. In fact, I shall shortly stop writing so that I can watch the 10 o'clock news, not because I expect to learn anything new about the Referendum Poll just closing all over Scotland, but because I feel I'm living through a moment in history that I can't bear to miss.

Today I voted YES. Actually, I voted ... what? three weeks ago? Because I had a postal vote, left over from a previous election which clashed with a holiday. I felt excited when I posted it, and I felt excited today, all over again. Not that my local polling station gave much sign of its huge importance in  today's events - it's a dreary place, in a rather dull street, and there is little on the pavement outside to lift the heart.

Today I voted YES. And in that vote, and in my hopes, are all the memories. Memories of the first time I began to feel aware of the effect on my life of the policies that I had always imagined affected ... other people. I shall never forget the sudden pang of realisation that I had brought my young firstborn baby to live next to a foreign nuclear submarine base: the US Navy's Site One. When that first child was joined by a second, I was on the road to activism. Throughout the miserable '80s I demonstrated, made speeches, appeared on radio and television and went to court as an expert witness in several trials of Greenham Women arrested when they came to join us in demonstrating against the Holy Loch base. I picketed polling stations; I leafleted countless households. Always the word came back: What can we do?

I remember more. I remember hearing a British Naval officer addressing a meeting in Ardentinny Hall, telling us that in the event of an accidental explosion at the Coulport base across the loch, Glenfinart Bay would somehow, miraculously avoid the blast as there would be a ... dent, a distortion of the blast circle. I remember the day Thatcher was re-elected, and the despair I felt; I remember drinking champagne in the sun that day in 1997 when Tony Blair was elected, and I remember the fading of that hope as his government ploughed on, betraying all that we had hoped for. I remember marching with thousands through a frosty Glasgow, protesting against the Iraq war. It happened anyway.

I remember too that day I stood on the Royal Mile watching the strange assortment of people that told us Scotland had its own parliament again - the Queen, Donald Dewar, Sean Connery. The Red Arrows thundered overhead. Something was changing. And of course I remember - how could we forget? - the day we learned that something else had happened against all expectation, that the SNP had won an overwhelming majority and that we were bound to have a referendum.

All this streams behind us tonight. Whatever the result of this closely-contested poll, we will never be the same. We have engaged with the issues in an unprecedented fashion and we have grown in confidence as a nation. I hope personally that the fearful have not prevailed this night, and that our new hope and new alignments will carry us forward from tomorrow morning. But even if the NO vote wins, we cannot go back to the old certainties, the old obedience.

And as I finish, I can be proud that the children I so feared for in their infancy have grown into the men they are - one with a vote today, the other disqualified by living elsewhere. My vote in this Referendum began with them, and the future is theirs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Normandy Fahrt Day 2: Gott hat das letzte wort

Our first full day begins early. (We soon discover that this will be the norm throughout - brisk breakfasts and trotting toilettes). It is more or less dark when we get up, with that chilly, mist-laden dawn that characterises the early morning in France where mornings are earlier than they are in Scotland because they're not really far enough east to justify being an hour ahead. But I digress. We drive through misty fields with picturesque rolls of whatever crop it is they grow in these parts and find ourselves on the headland above the small town of Arromanches. This is where most of the British troops came ashore on D-Day, and where the Mulberry Harbour was built to allow equipment and supplies to be brought ashore. Several bits of the harbour remain visible in the sea as well as abandoned on the beach (above).

The visit takes on what will become a familiar pattern: an overview, a museum visit, extended free time to explore and ponder. I add to this the pressing need for coffee and insist that a small cafe across the road from the museum should be our first stop. There is something wonderfully sinful about lunching on an espresso, a bottle of water and a crêpe au caramel salé ...

Four of us, feeling relatively lithe and fit, set off through the town towards the headland. We pass several of our fellow-Fahrters eating substantially in various hostelries, but do not yield. We clamber on a concrete gun emplacement, we walk along a cliff path that is forbidden because of erosion. No-one falls off, and we return to the town for a small pichet of rosé before the coach drive to our next visit, noting as we go that several objects along the shop fronts are cosily wrapped in squares of ... knitting. I know. I don't get it either.

The remainder of the afternoon is spent visiting the German war graveyard at La Cambe. This site was developed between 1958 and 1961, with a great deal of work being done by an international youth camp in 1959. Now more than 21,000 German soldiers are buried here. I found it a sombre place; the graves are marked by flat dark basalt lava plaques about the size of an open book, and watched over by groups of low crosses in dark stone. We are so accustomed to seeing movies like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, where the German soldiers are anonymous figures to be killed or captured by the invading Allies; it is all too easy to forget the humanity of individual boys and men who fought in their thousands and died far from home. Albert Schweitzer said "the soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace", and on the plinth below the heavy cross at the centre of the cemetery there is an inscription which ends with the words: Gott hat das letzte wort. This was one of the places where I felt an overwhelming need to be on my own, and I wandered far, looking at the stones where two or even three names were recorded together. Several were dedicated simply to Ein Deutscher Soldat.

The day ended not in pious reflection but in raucous singing of songs associated with the period of WW2. Several years ago, when we paid a similar visit to the battlefields of the Somme, I thought I would find this jarring, but realised that we were no different from the soldiers who would celebrate the fact that they were still alive by being ... themselves. The Château rang with the noise until well on in the evening and I was glad we were sleeping on the top floor. As I went to bed I could hear an owl among the trees outside and then it was silent. Another early start awaited us ...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Normandy Fahrt: Day 1

I've been away. And although I've been back for several days now, my days in Normandy are still very much with me - so much so that I feel a diarist's approach might be better than trying to encompass everything in one post. So here we are with Day1: the journey...

By the time the 2014 Fahrt (German for 'journey', natch, but capable of other interpretation) arrives on the Continent, it has already been on the road for 24 hours. (Collective noun in use, as well as 'road' standing also for 'sea'). Around 40 people have been gathered into a coach from Linlithgow lay-byes, Asda carparks and the like and driven to Hull - a city which, as Philip Larkin apparently observed, people only visit if they have business there. Our business was the P&O ferry to Zeebrugge, on which we had booked basic cabins (no porthole, bunk beds). Some of us chickened out of this and paid for upgrades ... The food and service were excellent; most of us have slept. I have not. I blame the decaff. I think it wasn't.

But onward. Onward south and west, into France and on to the Chateau du Molay, where we are staying in the accommodation usually used by school trips. We have visited our first war graves, in the War Graves Commission cemetery in Bayeux (above). There we have laid a wreath in memory of a Linlithgow soldier buried there, and have been moved by the sight of so many graves and the sound of the Last Post echoing through the birdsong of early evening. (Mr B had his iPod and Bose dock with him). I am forcibly struck by the dates of birth on so many of the stones - so many of these soldiers had been born in the years when my parents were born and I realise that we represent the children they never had.

We soon find, Mr B and I, that although we have to consign our luggage to the lift and will henceforth be scampering up 3 flights of stairs to reach our room, which is in the roof and has a Velux window, we are blessed with two single beds (some rooms have multiple bunks) and a kettle. I even seem to have a feather pillow. My cup is already full before I eat; the rest of me is soon full of an excellent dinner. The noise level in the dining room is startling. Mr B and I slip out as the Fahrters head for the bar. Outside, the moon is shining and it is silent apart from the residual hum in our ears. The chateau looks romantic and peaceful. It is going to be a good Fahrt.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer reading

What have I been reading recently? Nice of you to ask - I have been reading more than I might, because it's been the kind of weather that allows you to read outside, and I'm an outdoorsy sort who can't bear to sit in if the sun's shining or even if it's not and ... and ... Enough. Right now I've started on Lucretia Grindle's The Lost Daughter  and I'm enjoying it hugely, in the way you  do when you've read several of an author's books and settle comfortably into the environment - in this case Florence - and the characters (Italian cops) you've met before. I continue to be slightly irritated by the writer's tick of consigning adjectival clauses to a separate sentence more than once (once is fine, but it's too distinctive a trait to use more often), but she writes a good tale and the setting is terrific.

I'll not go on about that, however, because I'm just settling in - though I may return for a final thought. Before embarking on the Grindle I was reading the deeply unsettling The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin. Set in Canada and Cambodia, this is a story of the Killing Fields, so I'm now considerably more clued up on Pol Pot and the horrors of that era than I was in the 70s, when I was too preoccupied with bringing up children. As I shall be visiting Cambodia and Vietnam next year, it seemed a good way for a fiction fiend to pick up some history, and a pretty ghastly history it is. Echlin writes in an elegiac way that incorporates Cambodian words into her dialogue and reflects the music that brings the lovers of her story together, but under the poetry of her language is an undercurrent of tension that meant I sometimes had to stop reading (at bedtime, usually) before I was ready to.

I read another thought-provoking book in Frankie and Stankie, by Barbara Trapido. This is a delightfully-narrated account of growing up in the South Africa that existed while I was a child, the South Africa of growing apartheid seen through the eyes of the child of white liberals who nevertheless mingled with the rest of white society - though they took a dim view of the Afrikaaners, whom they saw as boorish country clods. The child-like clarity of the prose means that events happen without necessarily being interpreted; with our hindsight we are able to see how things gathered their own ghastly momentum and changed a world even as its inhabitants watched. I'm glad to have read it.

And then there was the appropriately seasonal Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell. This is the story of a family, beautifully and lovingly told, with fascinating flashbacks gradually explaining what is happening and making it possible for the family to continue. I especially enjoyed the seemingly effortless mastery of the writer, the firm grasp of tense, the fine strokes of characterisation. Set in the heatwave of July 1976 - a heatwave in London which was not, I can tell you with all the authority of a diarist, a heatwave in Dunoon - the writer keeps the heat there, oppressively present without being over-described, so that you are constantly aware of the difficulties of coping rationally with any crisis. I saved this one up for the appropriate season, and it went down a treat.

And now, chums, I'm away back to Florence. I'm not after all going to say any more till I'm finished. The sun is shining in the garden and I want to read ...

Monday, July 14, 2014

A unique privilege

On the kind of day when I look out at the rain and mist and breathe a prayer of thankfulness that I have no visitors staying, no children hoping for a visit to the beach or an adventure in the forest, I find myself reflecting - for solace, as it were - on what it is that makes being a grandparent so special. Remember, I never thought of myself as the maternal type - until my first son was born. Then I was maternal, but actually only towards him, and towards the second son who followed four years later. I still found other people's children attractive only insofar as they met my criteria, not simply because they were children, and I taught adolescents in the assumption that they were doing what the name suggests - growing older, becoming people. And I liked people.

So when my sons were men and became husbands and announced that they were to be fathers, I was not at all sure how that would feel. Maybe mothers are always like that; it's not something I've discussed. And then the babies were born and my world was turned upside down for the second time in my life. The connection to these tiny infants was unbelievable in its impact, maternal instinct or no. What today's reflection consolidated was that for almost seven years now I've enjoyed the immense privilege of a chance to experience the uncritical acceptance and love from children who seem to know, whether we meet frequently or seldom, that there is a bond that can be trusted and a love that will never be withheld. I regard it as a unique privilege, even though it is shared by other grandparents, because it is unique in any one life - unique and undreamed-of.

When we are parents, we are so busy being parents that we tend not to notice the passage of time other than in landmarks like walking, talking and teeth. Our own lives are so full with the minutiae of care that there is little time to reflect - and then the time has passed, the children are drifting out of our orbit, sharing their lives with increasing numbers of strangers, becoming people just as we did before them. There is a sense of a faint regret, perhaps, but we are caught up in the amazement that these new people came from us, and the anxiety or exhilaration that surrounds their achievements. Finally, they leave - and I think sons do this more conclusively than daughters - and the cycle begins again.

The grandchildren, that golden second chance to be with children and love them and have them smother you in sticky kisses and tell you they are going to miss you when they say goodbye, come and bring with them that added bonus of perspective. A grandparent knows all too well how swiftly that chariot careers along on its breathless wings; this grandparent has learned that every moment - even the tired, grumpy moment - has to be cherished and savoured like a mouthful of fine wine, like the perfect cadence hanging in the silence that applause will soon break.

And that is why I will walk away from other demands if my family, my two-generational family, asks me to; that is why I defer final commitment to other tasks; that is why I add caveats to most of the arrangements I make these days. For it is a fact that to be a grandmother who can tell interesting stories and supply adventures when asked, I still need to be living my own interesting life - so there are arrangements made, commitments given, and life sometimes feels almost as hectic as it was when I was a young parent.

The difference is that I can lay a great deal of it aside. And when I have to be grandma, I do.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cloudy morning

I started writing this before the current spell of dry weather, when I was longing for it to look and feel like summer. As the solstice is rather cloudier than anything we've seen in the past week, it seems a suitable time to finish it off and publish it...

As I step outside
the damp, birdsong air opens wide
freeing my claustrophobic brain
from the confines of waking thought
and the fears of night. Why do we
close ourselves in grey, these days
that threaten rain? I want to
sing with the birds in the promise
of the new light, the freshness of green - to forget 
to fear the darkness that awaits 
at this day’s end, at all our ends.

And in the rain-washed morning
a hidden bird repeats why
not, why not, why not?

© C.M.M. 06/14