My Grandad got a bad deal out of World War Two; even though good deals were thin on the ground back then for everyone. He was shot down over Hannover, beaten, hung up, tortured, locked in a Cattle truck in Berlin for three days while his own side bombed the place, and finally placed in a Prisoner of War camp that tried to starve him to death.
He escaped, so it goes, and arrived home to my Grandmother a broken man and a changed human being. Prior to the war he was a champion sprinter, and even rode the Wall of Death in a travelling circus. He laughed a lot, so my Nan said, but when he got back he didn’t even want to speak.
During his captivity the Gestapo had tried to cut out his tongue, and they had run a knife down his back while he was strung up in a small room with hardly any light, but plenty of chains. I saw those scars on his back once. They made mine look silly. But he would never talk about hurt and hate and the collapse of his mental health. It’s not what you did.
Still, after the War he brought up a family and made a living for the seven kids my Nan would eventually have. He set about driving lorries from the docks at London. Frequently he’d cycle twenty miles to and from work, in all weathers, and he never backed down from a fight anywhere. My uncle says my Grandad was a man who’d fight a Polar Bear on the street if need be. But he was also a man who beat his kids with things like broom handles and copper pipe and smashed things to pieces in catatonic rages which echoed along their council street. My Father knew this too well. It stayed with him as a model of parenthood and as a bleak reminder that childhood was not about enjoyment. He’d left home as soon as he was 16 just to get a job anywhere away from what should have been a safe and loving environment.
For all the time I knew my Grandad he made me laugh, and I had a soft spot for the old man. He was kind of my hero, except I didn’t really know him and I definitely didn’t know what horror he carried with him until almost the very end. We didn’t see each other very often, yet he had chosen me as the one to pour out the war to on one sunny Spring afternoon outside my parent’s house; one nightmare after another escaping the years and given to me through his tears. I was sad when he died. I cried a lot for his death, and for his life.
The War had filled our family and trickled down the effect of human cruelty through the eons and into naive genes, ending at my door as a little boy. I am partly the product – varyingly, maybe, with abnormal brain morphology and the evolutionary chance of a real, bona fide loser – of mass hatred and mass spite. I was born to lose, common sense. It’s why I hid in terror in my bedroom for most of my childhood; why I drugged myself into oblivion as a teenager; hated myself; cut myself; drank; all those things that ended eventually at the tipping point of far too many tablets and tears and large gulps, wishing I could make it all go away.
Today, the World has not become a better place because of the experiences of my Grandad, or the Fifty Million people who died in screaming pain in just six simple years. Palestine burns, Syria ejects children into the sea to drown like, well….children, and better nuclear bombs are on their way to the UK any time soon. Nah, the World learned nothing, but I did: “If you Tolerate this, then your children will be next.” (Spanish Civil War Propaganda poster)