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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

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My views are less black and white in this grey old world

IT IS amazing how grey the world becomes when you grow older – and it is amazing how comforting that can be!

I say this because of Remembrance Sunday when I consider how much my views have changed – and how I wish my father was still alive to tell him.

Dad and I argued over everything. We were probably the most passionate people in our family and, as my mother always claimed, the most alike.

We both loved poetry, we both loved literature and we were both passionately political.

Where we parted company, however, was in our world view.

Looking back, with a vision slightly more coloured by those shades of grey, I realise that we both had exactly the same thought process but, unfortunately, ended up with exactly the opposite viewpoint.

I sometimes wonder how we would be now. Dad died of cancer in 1989 and I had already spent so many of my growing-up years away from him.

I went to boarding school when I was 12, to the UK to study journalism, to South Africa to work as a journalist and then to New Zealand as a very young married woman.

I often think about him. Sometimes it is with regret because we didn’t ever reach that stage of understanding that he shared with both my sisters who were not quite as black and white about things as I was. The middle sister Liz was “the son I never had” and the little one, Fiona, remained his “baby” all his life.

The reason I am bringing up all this family history is that last Sunday was Remembrance Sunday – and if I have one single regret in life, it is the intolerance of my youth.

There was nothing wrong with being a pacifist and, at heart, I still am. My favourite song growing up was Universal Soldier in which Donovan reminded us: “He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame. His orders come from far and near no more. He’s the one who must decide who’s to live and who’s to die – and without him all this killing can’t go on.”

He was saying that if soldiers refused to fight, there could not be a war.

Dad never spoke about his war experiences. In fact when, as children, we found an Oak Leaf among his possessions he told us he had been given it because he had broken a world record running away from the Japanese.

It was only in 2002, long after his death, that my mother was sent the Imperial War Museum book of the War in Burma by Julian Thompson. My dad gets a mention in that book.

He and his commanding officer, Jimmy Chapman, had stopped a Japanese battalion, holding it with very little ammunition.

The book says: “It was with this stubborn action that eventually made the destruction of the Japanese possible.”

That is something I should have known about and been proud of. Now I am – when it is too late to tell him!

When I was an arrogant and idealistic teenager, I would probably just have condemned him for his action.

“Even if Hitler was about to kill my family,” I used to say and believe, “I would offer only passive resistance. There is never a reason for war!”

Now that I have kids of my own, I know better. Now I would kill anyone who even looked at my kids the wrong way, never mind threatened them with physical harm.

When I was a little girl, before I had a political agenda of any kind, we would go with Dad to the Remembrance Sunday parades and he always looked so tall, so straight and so happy to be with his friends.

He was a MOTH (Memorial Order of the Tin Hats), which would have been as big in Rhodesia as the British Legion was here. Most of our socialising was at the MOTH Club.

Funny, really, because what we had there was a bunch of men who had been under fire, who had undergone the atrocities of war. They never talked about it and yet they tended to gather together like this.

Last Sunday, as on every remembrance service I have ever attended, I felt sadness for the fewer and fewer old men who are still with us and sorrow for those, in conflicts past and present, who never got to grow old; who never got to discover, let alone realise, their potential.

These parades still engender in me thoughts of the futility of war. But now the soldiers are no longer the cause. Now I am old enough to see that sometimes bullies have to be dealt with. Sometimes we can’t just sit back and watch others suffer.

If this column has a message it is, firstly, one of apology – to my own dad and to all the others I have judged.

Secondly, it is a thank you from all of us who are free because of you.

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