Sunday, 12 November 2017

A photo blog for Remembrance...

Although my father Ronald's military career was brief, it was dazzling. He was enlisted into the Royal Artillery in 1940, aged 22, was commissioned in 1941 and promoted to Major, acting up as Lieutenant-Colonel towards the end of his time. At one time he was the youngest major in the Royal Artillery. 

Ronald served in the Western Desert Campaign under Field-Marshall Montgomery, at one point serving as a junior staff officer for him. He sustained a fractured pelvis in September 1943 resulting in lifelong osteoarthritis.

"The 31st Field Regt. R.A. was in the area [Jerusalem] for mountain warfare training and I was a passenger in a vehicle which overturned causing the fracture of the pelvis, other minor injuries and shock," he wrote. All other occupants of the vehicle were killed. He spent months in military hospitals in Jerusalem and Sarafand. 

He was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, the 1939-1945 George VI Medal, the Africa Star and the Defence Medal.

At the end of the war he went to staff college in Woolwich, and it was his intention to stay in the army after the war. He was going to be posted to India, but his second child was due and he chose to leave the army to be with his wife and children. 

He was discharged on 27 November 1946.

All photos are from my family collection. Thanks to my sister Kate Moulin for some of the detail.

Ronald in June 1940

Buerat, Libya. "Official photograph passed by publicity censor."

Zliten, Libya.

Ronald is the second on the left.

"Official photograph passed by publicity censor."

Heliopolis, September 1942. Ronald wrote on the back: "It's all the fault of the sandwich in my R. hand!!"

Ronald on the left, seated, at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Cheops

Tanks firing

"Official photograph passed by publicity censor."

"Official photograph passed by publicity censor."

"A smashing Xmas, Adolf. Official photograph passed by publicity censor."

Ronald in February 1944

Ronald on the far right in South Africa. "I'm not as stiff as this would suggest!! Perhaps I adopted it 'cos I'd been so long on my back."

Ronald on the far left. "Bob and I look just about as brown as we are!!"

Ronald taking "light refreshment at Aswan. N.B. it's lemonade - not beer - worse luck. Sept. 44."

"The guns - in action - for the last time!! St Barnabas Day memorial service. 4 Dec. 45, Almaza, Cairo."

Letter from The War Office dated 11 October 1946.

Ronald with my mum Pat, 27 July 1984.

I have Ronald's trunk and complete army uniform, including pyjama case and goggles.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Witchy weathervanes and woodsmoke

I love to walk down the high street of our village at dusk, just before the curtains are pulled close, to catch a glimpse of others’ inside worlds. At this time of year the perfume of woodsmoke and the nip in the air add to the atmosphere. You feel almost as if you could step back in time into those timber-framed dwellings, while the witchy weathervanes and the swirls of pargetting suggest that the past and its mysteries are merely a step away.

This homely feel as you peer into the pastel-painted snugs of neighbours is deceptive. Not so long ago, this part of Suffolk was a hotbed of suspicion and persecution, and that witch atop the weathervane serves as a reminder of dangerous times.

From 1599 to 1694 a series of witch trials took place a few miles away in Bury St Edmunds. The most famous was that of 1645, overseen by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General.18 people – 16 women and two men – were executed in one day as a result. And this was only one of 124 witch trials that took place in Suffolk that same year…

More evidence of the fear of witches can be seen quite clearly today. In one old farmhouse, just down the road from where I type, marks made from candle flames can still be seen upstairs, where they were believed to ward off evil or protect against a possessed member of the household. The ‘possessed’ may simply have been a sleepwalker, the marks’ proximity to bedrooms suggesting so.

Desiccated cats – often placed in the walls of newly-built homes centuries ago to ward off evil - are a regular feature here too – one has been hanging up in the bar of The Nutshell pub in Bury St Edmunds for years, and you can come face to face with Rameses at the Guildhall in Lavenham. Bottles and shoes would also be placed strategically to protect against witches.

It’s not all scary though. Our village was once home to a priory of Augustinian canons, founded in 1100. The remains of the priory church and tomb slabs can be seen today, in the lawn of what is now a private house. It may be spooky to think of the goings-on 900 or more years ago, but I have only ever felt a surge of positive benevolence in the vicinity of the building.

Suffolk’s historic backdrop has inspired some of my own unusual experiences.

Close to the site of the Order of the Holy Cross of Welnetham, the Crutched Friars, I was met by a shimmering mass of energy, almost – but not quite – in human form one dark October evening when I opened my front door. Again, there was no feeling of malevolence, it was just like a friend popping round to say hello, or beware, or may peace be upon you.

I am happy to share my village with the imprints of my forebears, even those accused of witchcraft, the monks, the Roman soldiers who once stood guard on the corner there, and the Anglo Saxons who left burial urns and a fine gold cross to mark their place in history. They were friendly folk, I’m sure. What I find more infinitely more chilling are the witchfinders and the self-proclaimed mark makers and the finger pointers, who sought persecution and terrorised a peaceful place.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Tidying Away of Things

Where to start with the tidying away of things? There are still piles of mainly clothes to be sorted through of people who have moved on or grown too lanky. A selection of my baby clothes from the seventies in exotic materials such as bri-nylon, either in faded whites or creams or in startling floral patterns, purple and blue. These were handed on to my daughter, and now have been washed and ironed and folded in a particular way and secreted in a box. But it’s not conclusive, though it’s meant to be a neat tying up of ends, and during the act I find myself wondering if a granddaughter of mine, God willing, will wear them, and will they seem ridiculously old-fashioned by then?

And there’s a box of my grandpa’s and dad’s ties in my wardrobe because I don’t know what to do with them. I have neatly coiled them and put them in a Christmas cake tin, because that is what seems appropriate and dignified – don’t ask me why.

I’m trying to collect my mother’s handwritten notes hidden about the house and in the pages of books but it’s like trying to capture darting butterflies in an unwieldy net. A page fell out of a map the other day: ‘There’s a dog sanctuary at STOWMARKET can can [sic] see if they advertise?’, and my handwritten directions on the back, bearing right and bearing left all over Suffolk.  It is now on display on my chest of drawers, propped up over a baby picture of my son. There is no logic to these gestures, other than they spark a small chemical reaction inside the heart – you believe you are dignifying the memory of a loved one and you feel better and your step is a little lighter, I suppose.

A ceremony and a gathering summarise the life of a bright soul and enable us in part to make sense of what we believe to be too short a time here.  There was a concentration of thought and emotion and a reverent hush before the service, except in the row behind me where an animated pair pointed out so-and-so and someone else, and murmured of the new ‘lady vicar’. It brought a smile to my face. We are all the same – curious and gossipy but capable of comfort and empathy for those who have lost. Afterwards the congregation piled out of the church and lined up outside, and slyly looked to see whether that couple was still going strong and if someone had aged well, and whether that old flame lived up to the memories.

And so I continue with my sorting – which I know will never end – and the processing of the memories and the layers of joy, questioning and healing that have slipped in between the tissue paper.