Monday, September 29, 2014

Normandy Fahrt Day 3: Omaha Beach

We spent our third day in France reliving the American experience on Omaha Beach. I felt I knew most of what happened there from endless re-runs of The Longest Day (shot on location: we saw photos of local involvement in the filming) and the more recent Saving Private Ryan, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer size of the cemetery that takes up the whole area on the cliffs where the German defences were sited above the main beach. There is something about the starkness of the white crosses rising straight out of the cropped grass, crosses that had name, rank and company as well as home state and date of death, that depersonalised the loss for me - no emblems, no age given for the dead, no flowerbeds around the graves. Instead, I was forcibly aware of the anonymity of these ranks - look at the lines, which flow straight in every direction - and the dedication that ensures that every single grave has this cropped grass round the foot of the cross (or Star of David: you can see one to the right of centre in the photo). There were clumps of heather round the pine trees grouped occasionally around the site, a multi-faith chapel that was too over-run by visitors to give me any sense of anything, and a Garden of the Missing where a 22-foot statue ‘The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves’ looks west over the headstones - over 9,000 graves,  among which are the stones of 45 sets of brothers, and 1,557 missing in action.

But even more than among the graves, it was down on the beach that I felt the hopelessness of the  task faced by these young men from halfway across the world as the ramps of their landing craft fell forward and they saw what they had to climb, under withering fire, if the invasion was to succeed.
 The photo on the left shows Mr B and friend on the sand where so many died just as they left the sea, and beyond them, the trees standing distinct on the skyline show where the guns overlooked the whole area, while other fortifications were, I think, among the dunes where the vegetation starts. The photo below shows the same section of beach from what is now the viewpoint; it would have been a  viewpoint with a rather different purpose in 1944. The area to be covered is now traversed by a neat path that you can see disappearing in the middle of this photo, but even with its steps and easy gradient it took us a
good 15 minutes to climb back up. The area in between is now covered in shrubs that I imagine have been planted to deter wandering in this site, which is entirely given over as a memorial.

After a break for lunch had turned into a truly French affair (because some of us went looking for a crêperie and ordered galettes complètes and while this is fast food for one it isn't for 14), we visited another sobering site above the Pointe du Hoc, where the American Rangers had to climb the cliffs to reach the huge guns which actually for the most part faced inland because the Germans didn't think anyone would make that climb. The whole area was pitted with the holes from the shellfire from the Allied ships, and we were able to go inside the concrete gun emplacements and see the view made famous by a scene in The Longest Day when a German officer first saw the invasion on the horizon.  We went from there to another iconic site, where an American paratrooper famously caught on the roof of the church in Ste Mere Eglise and hung there for hours pretending to be dead to avoid being shot. A museum stands on the site where on the fateful night a house was on fire, and - somewhat bizarrely - we could see from the town square the torn parachute and (model) paratrooper still hanging from the church roof.

That evening, like the previous one, was spent in raucous entertainment. The young staff of the Chateau flocked, like little moths, to the door of the room where this mob of ancients acted Allo Allo in execrable French accents and sang wartime favourites and French songs at the top of their still-unbelievably-loud voices to the accompaniment of a small keyboard pounded to great effect by Mr B.

As I've said on previous occasions, you really had to be there ...


Friday, September 26, 2014

Radio 4 discusses Maths - a poem of bewilderment

Radio 4 discusses Maths

There’s a magic number
called e, that has the 
power to solve the world’s
problems, to be practical in ways
we never dreamed, and I
think of pi and other
imponderables, and I feel my brain
reeling, eyes fluttering, under
the onslaught. It was ever
thus, x years ago, when I sat, 
uniformed but uninformed
at a wooden desk scarred quite
fascinatingly by the past.
Are there any numbers out there
that cannot be written as a 
fraction? That’s it. I break, 
fractured by fractions
and irrational numbers.

© C.M.M. 09/14

I wrote the above yesterday, on the proverbial back of an envelope, while listening to Radio 4's Melvyn Bragg discussion on the radio. I stopped eating my toast while a horribly familiar sensation from my distant schooldays crept over me. My brain had gone into free fall  and my tenuous grasp on the discussion had snapped. However, I was happy that normal activity was still intact: the poem just flowed out and I've only changed one line since. 

I am grateful to my friend Frank for sending me the mathematical statement that provides me with an illustration when all else would have been as meaningless as ... e.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Referendum Question - a poem for the aftermath

Referendum Question

Would there have been tears

when the old Union died,
a bitter mourning for the loss
of joyous hope denied?
Or is this death forever theirs
who dare to look beyond the past?
The autumn sun is lower now,
the wind blows cool, the petals drop; 
the hills lie purple as the pheasants’ cry
foretells their death before the guns,
and far from here contending claims
engulf the promises held out
to save a tryst whose love was spent.
The question asks the aftermath:
would there, would there have been tears?

© C.M.M 09/14

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.