Perceptions of war

So, we’re a month into 2014, a century on from the beginning of events that would change Europe forever. Six months from now, on the fourth of August, it will be precisely one hundred years since Britain joined the war (let’s avoid the easy, sanitising euphemism ‘conflict’) that pitted not just country against country but groups of states, whole alliances of countries that were locked together in promises of mutual help should any one find itself threatened, in a world-wide conflagration. I speak of course of World War One. Doubtless America will commemorate its entry on the sixth of April 1917 too.

It was the first war to become truly globalised – and hideously industrialised. The human race has always been extremely adept at finding ever better methods of slaughtering itself. This was the first time killing happened, the first time lives were squandered on a mass-production – no, mass-destruction scale. This isn’t to say that all the many, many wars preceding it in the world’s inglorious history of hating and fearing the Other, or of expansionist conquest driven by greed, or of squabbling over religion, were any less horrible for the hapless soldiers involved or the civilians at home either. Of course they weren’t. On a personal level, being killed or hideously maimed or raped or in any other way brutalised is equally cruel, whatever the scale.

But because WW1 was such a large-scale affair compared with earlier wars, with sometimes thousands being killed or dreadfully wounded daily in order to gain a few metres of territory, we look back on it in complete horror. Few of us (in spite of the recent arguments between the political Right and Left in Britain) regard it as in any degree glorious. We simply think of it as quite insane and utterly hellish. As the ultimate brutality, which killing in war (or indeed any killing) always is, of course.

And so we should. We should commemorate and remember WW1 not in triumphalism but reflectively, sorrowful that the world should have descended into such barbarity and madness then, countless times before then, and far too many times since.

And yet, conversely, to some extent at least, WW2 is perceived differently. There’s really no reason why it should be though. That second great mass slaughter killed even more people worldwide, not in sordid trenches on foreign soil in a grinding war of attrition but on battlefields and the home front alike. Yes, there were attacks on the British mainland by German battleships and bombing by zeppelins, but there was far more terror rained down upon non-combatants in WW2. You weren’t spared the possibility of death if you were a British civilian living, terrified, in the big cities, particularly London. Or in the occupied countries of Europe. Or if you were a Jew. Or an inhabitant of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Or Leningrad. Or Dresden.

My father during WW2

My father during WW2

Yet WW2 is, whilst recognising its horror (or often was in the immediate post-war years, at any rate) portrayed in more heroic terms. Think plucky Brits enduring the Blitz night after horrific night, raising two defiant fingers to Hitler; brave French Resistance compatriots, enduring torture and death if caught; American GIs gallantly dying in droves on Omaha Beach, making the European cause their own.

But WW1 is never glorified. Although Victoria Crosses were won (and Iron Crosses on the other side), there are few heroic tales told that fire the public’s imagination. The heroism was often lower-key; Tommies suffering trench foot or shell shock or disease as well as death or horrible wounding, as if those weren’t bad enough; or wives and mothers suffering bereavement or coping with ruined war-regurgitated men, or poverty because the breadwinner didn’t come back, or  was too broken to ever work properly again if he did.

So this year begins, in Europe anyway, the commemoration and remembrance of the first great global holocaust. There will be many films shown; many books written. War and death are fertile subjects for the artist. I confess I’m no exception, but I hope I’ve treated the subject with the dignity it deserves.

Because the World Wars were such seminal periods of the twentieth century, my second book, Forebears, which chronicles the last 105 years, pays them due regard. But it tells the stories of ordinary folk, suffering, unheroically by conventional standards; soldiers and civilians alike. It’s my attempt at a testament of Joe (and Josephine) Public.

On a lighter note, here is chapter 8 of Wishing for the Better.

Wishing For The Better/8

Well now we’ve really burnt our boats. Good job our mums can’t see us, again. But then, I don’t suppose anything we did would surprise them now. We’re on our final journey down to Ffynnonwen Fawr. No more weekending: now it’s for real.

Goodbyes have been said at work, that strange occupation I followed in a previous life. Cyril was very kind; he said I was a good designer (a little implied criticism of my madcap scheme there perhaps) and he was sorry to see me go. All my friends wished me well. Keys to Kingsnordley have been handed over to John. I hope he and Pat will be happy there. We were, until we got the wanderlust again.

It seems strange, rather unreal. As if we’re really on the cusp of great change. We knocked on a door imbued with great significance and meaning. It swung open and we couldn’t help but venture through. I could certainly never have imagined anything remotely like this happening eighteen years ago, when all I could think of doing as a job was painting and decorating (although in later life that would become a happy occupation). I wonder what made me like this. Perhaps there’s a gene for contentedness, accepting your lot, in most people but in me it’s missing. Still, enough navel gazing. A golden future beckons.

Two problems, one minor and the other a little more important had to be sorted out when we arrived. The first was where to put our furniture until the extension was built and we had a lot more space. Fortunately, there was an empty outhouse that would hold it for the time being. The second was where to put Steph and me, to sleep. On weekend visits we’d made do with chairs and sofas in the sitting room. But it would be a while, obviously, before the extension was up and we didn’t want to improvise until then. A small caravan was acquired and brought to the farm, and strategically placed just outside the kitchen door, so that it would be only a brief dash to bed when it was raining. It wasn’t a brilliant bedroom, but better than camping out in the sitting room, and it was a bit of private space.

Roll on the day when we could start the extension! The full plans had gone in to Carmarthen County Council, and one day a helpful young man from the planning department came to do a site visit. He thought our grandiose plans a bit unusual, but when we explained our rather unorthodox needs he seemed fairly satisfied. What he really thought when he drove back to his office was anybody’s guess.

We soon got into a work routine. Merv was away much of the time, working next door and rather missing out on much of the lifestyle, and probably slightly resenting the fact. Sue had also got a money earner going: she had a market stall in Carmarthen, selling cheap clothing and the like, and that brought in more cash. This could be an outlet for Steph’s craftwork and clothing. That left the other three of us doing the farm work, and caring for the three youngest children. It doesn’t take very long to milk eight cows twice a day, and quite long periods were spent in the kitchen drinking coffee, debating things and not doing very much. A start had been made at gardening, but this wasn’t occupying a great many hours either. Feeling that I ought to be justifying my presence more, I experimented with vaguely ethnic-looking personalised pendant jewellery. Actually it was simply pebbles and pieces of slate polished, lacquered and painted with initials of the ‘Celtic’ lettering I’d used for our logo. I thought it looked quite good, but Sue found she couldn’t sell it and when I tried touting it around the craft shops in Carmarthen they weren’t interested.

It soon became obvious that a small monthly milk cheque from the dairy, Merv’s wages, Sue’s takings and lots of good intentions weren’t enough to support us, certainly not with five extra  mouths to feed. The few thousand pounds of capital we’d brought in had been used partly to clear debts and partly salted away for the extension, and it would obviously have been silly to dip into it for support. Chris had worked for a while before we came, on a local chicken farm, but hadn’t stuck with it as he’d been appalled by the casual cruelty of the slaughtering process. So the two of us went to Carmarthen job seeking. I saw a job in a motor parts firm advertised. Part of the work entailed mixing paint and I thought that, with my background, I’d be quite well suited to it. I said as much at the job interview, although the interviewer, the local branch manager, seemed unimpressed by my credentials. However I was given the job there and then. Chris fared less well, but I wasn’t altogether sure that he’d tried very hard.

Anyway, one more wage earner would help the finances a lot. I found that the paint mixing was nothing like I’d imagined. No wonder my claims of paint mixing expertise had fallen on deaf ears. Nowadays, of course, paint mixing is computer aided: the operator is prompted to dispense a certain number of shots for an indicated selection of pigments into the can of ‘base’ paint. It’s pretty well error-free and very precise. But back then it was quite different. First you had to search through a card-index file for the required paint colour. The firm had records of every colour for every model of car (or van) made by every manufacturer, both currently and going back many years. That’s a lot of colours. Each card was a formula for mixing the pigments by weight, in grams. (A gram is a very small unit of weight indeed). Using a very precise set of scales you carefully measured out quantities of pigment, accurate to the nearest gram and plopped them into the base. It took some concentration.

I had a couple of disasters in my early days. Once I must have either completely misread the formula or been way out with my weighing, because what should have been a red was sent back by an angry customer. Somehow, I’d mixed a dirty brown. Another time, I was careless in securing the lid on the can when I put it in the mixing machine. When I pressed the start button, off flew the   lid  and  out   spewed   the   paint,  spattering   everywhere.  It  was reminiscent of the receiving bays in the dining halls at Butlins. It took ages to clean the mess up. I blamed a fault in the machine. The manager checked it, found it worked properly and gave me a very stern look. I was extremely careful after that. The rest of the job consisted of serving parts at the counter. Customers would  ask for something like, say, an alternator for a specific model of vehicle and look at me expectantly, as if I would know immediately which one to bring out of the store at the rear. Again there was a system, but again it was pre-computer. It was a large well-thumbed manual, several inches thick, listing thousands of products with their prices. The other men could work the system efficiently of course, but it took me ages. And I was equally inept handling the money. Some people love working in retail. Not me. I find it a complete mystery.

A few weeks into my car parts career, I was offered the opportunity to swap jobs with the delivery driver. Ostensibly it was because he wasn’t performing too well, but I suspected it was more to do with keeping me away from the paint mixing and the counter. My first few days were dreadful, as I didn’t know the runs or where the drops were. Some were in really out-of-the-way places deep in the countryside, but even some of those in towns were often obscure little workshops up back alleys, and difficult to find. My first day was a nightmare. It was the biggest run of the week, going right up to Aberystwyth along the coast road and then returning with many diversions back down the spine of the country, through places like Tregaron and Lampeter. Before I set off the ex-driver gave me instructions for finding the garages and workshops, rattling off the unfamiliar Welsh names at great speed. I’ve always been hopeless at listening to directions, and that morning I certainly should have taken notes.

I set off in the orange Transit van and almost immediately found myself in trouble. I’d already forgotten where he’d said the first drop was – and there were thirty or more of them. I drove around the first town vainly hoping it would stand out, helpfully conspicuous. It didn’t. I asked someone where it was, and fortunately they  knew. The  second  drop  was  easier;  I  found  it fairly quickly. Things were improving. But then the third one refused to reveal itself. I asked again, and eventually found it. I’d now been on the road for two hours and managed to deliver three items. I tried another approach, and asked at each drop where the next one on my list was. I made myself concentrate really hard on the instructions for finding it, and this serial technique, keeping just one set of directions in my head at any one time, worked quite well. Except when the current recipient didn’t know where the next one was, of course. In those cases I had to revert to method A: just drive there and hope it would have a nice big Las Vegas-style neon arrow, perhaps flashing on and off, hanging above it.

So the day went on. It got to 6pm, and I began to find places closed. At others, fortunately, people were working late and looked at me astonished when I walked in. I got several commendations for my enthusiasm in working so late. If only they knew. But by 8pm every place, apart from the bigger petrol stations, was now closed. I’d got as far as Aberystwyth; half way round the run. There was nothing for it but to head for home with half of my cargo undelivered. The following morning there was the embarrassment of taking stuff back to the depot and the other men having to fend off angry calls from customers because their deliveries hadn’t arrived. A large hole in the ground would have been welcome. The second day I did the Pembrokeshire run, which was slightly easier if only because it was a bit shorter. But it still took far too long and I failed to deliver everything. On day three the ex-driver came with me on the Aberystwyth run, to show me the drops. He was a crazy driver and drove at breakneck speed, shouting instructions all the while as I tried to take them in. We did the entire run in a quarter of the time I’d taken.

After that things gradually got better as I learned where all the drops were, and I found myself actually getting back to Carmarthen before the end of the day. There were two other mini-disasters still to come though. On one of the early days, when I had yet to learn the subtle art of correctly loading for safe transportation, I braked sharply and a tin of paint fell over. The lid came off, and in a ghastly reprise of  the  mixing  incident  I  found the floor of the van awash with dark blue paint. At my next drop I begged some old newspaper and cleaned up the mess as best I could. But some damage had been done: it had splashed over an open box of goods such as antifreeze and screen-wash destined for a supermarket. I couldn’t possibly deliver it in that condition. I didn’t dare take it back to the depot either, so it went home to the farm with me at the end of the day (I was allowed to take the van home in the evenings) and that night Steph and I laboriously scraped the now dried-on paint off all the products. Fortunately it came off reasonably well; most things were in cartons and no actual products were ruined. I was a little annoyed that none of my new brothers and sisters lent a hand in rescuing me though. I kept the goods at home and delivered them the next time I did that round, and, fortunately for me, the firm was none the wiser.

The string of mishaps reached a horrible climax when, one late afternoon, I was driving along a narrow road on the way home. A tractor approached from the other direction and we had to squeeze past each other. Little did I know that there was a concealed ditch on my side. My front near side wheel slipped over into it, and the van executed an undignified nosedive and came to an abrupt, acutely angled halt. The tractor driver, full of solicitousness, attached a chain to his rear end and mine and pulled me out. The Transit did not look good. It’s nearside wing had become somewhat reformed, in an interestingly sculptural sort of way. Thankfully, there seemed to be no mechanical damage and the other driver and I dispensed with the usual insurance niceties. It was no one’s fault anyway. But I then had the doubtful pleasure of presenting the mangled van back at base the following morning. The manager hit the roof. When he came back down he threatened me with the sack if there were any more incidents. It was the first, and only, time in my variegated career that I came close to being fired.

While the van was being fixed the firm hired a variety of replacement vans. One was a Transit, but with a high box body. Out with it one day, I took an unfamiliar diversion and found my route   passed underneath a  low  railway  bridge.  Its height was marked, helpfully, but I hadn’t a clue what the height of my van was. It was probably marked on it, and as a responsible driver I was supposed to familiarise myself with it of course. It looked as though there’d be enough clearance. I temporarily resumed religious belief, said a silent prayer, gritted my teeth in a rictus grin  and went for it. I half expected to be brought to an abrupt grating halt but nothing happened. I’d cavorted with risk and, this time, got away with it. But I did check my vehicle height after that.

A few weeks into the adventure there was another important first. One of the cows was pregnant with her yearly calf. Although I’d been present at a very traumatic human birth, and seen Sadie the dog have puppies, witnessing a farm animal being born would be another important rite of passage into authentic smallholder life. I didn’t want to miss out, and luckily, she obligingly chose to drop it late one evening. Working as he did on a proper farm, Merv was by far the most experienced amongst us. Unless a real emergency occurred, he could handle a birth all right.

The cow had been showing birthing signs all day and was confined in one of the sheds ready for her (and my) big event. As animals do, she was taking it all in her stride, standing on a fresh layer of straw heaving and straining as the contractions became more frequent. We watched, fascinated, murmuring encouraging words, as probably only naive newcomers to the business do: old hands doubtless have a much brisker and efficient approach. The final stage came and Merv inserted his hand to make sure all the legs were presenting properly and not getting snarled up, did some hard pulling to help things along and suddenly there was the little bloodied black and white creature, trailing its umbilical cord, falling into the bed of straw. It lay still for a moment, but it was fine. Merv gave it a slap, cleared its mouth and rubbed it briskly with straw. It gave a little mewling bellow as its mother looked behind her, as if surprised by this sudden arrival.

A few moments later it was struggling to its feet, to stand swaying and knock-kneed on impossibly long little legs. Merv nudged it towards the udder, it found a teat and clamped on, and I felt a tremendous well of emotion. Obviously, this was a slight event compared with seeing my child born, but my eyes misted all the same. I tried to take myself mentally in hand. Don’t be silly; don’t be sentimental, I told myself. But compared with the mundane emptiness of van driving this felt profound; this was what it was all about. This was connecting with the natural world.

It was one of the few rural moments though: spending forty hours a week away doing my delivery work, I began to feel, like Merv (although he was at least doing farming and building a skills base) a little resentful that I was missing out on the commune experience. I began to feel rather at odds with the others in other ways too. Sue’s parents visited a few weeks into our joining, and her dad gave us all tetanus inoculations because agricultural work carried a greatly increased risk of the disease. Her mum commented to Steph and me that she was glad we’d joined: the group needed people with a greater sense of realism to counteract the others’ idealistic dreaminess. If we came across like that, perhaps we, or at least I, were a bit less radical than I had thought.

I was beginning to realise that I was more of an individualist than I would have previously admitted. Doing everything, everything as a group with all that implied for decision-making was fine if we all had equally strong characters. But we didn’t have. I, and Alexa, possibly because we were less well educated and therefore less articulate in debate, were the quiet ones during our discussions  (which Merv wanted to be formalised, with minutes taken – we were a only a group of like-minded friends, for goodness’ sake, not a committee) and I don’t know about her, but I found it increasingly frustrating. It can difficult enough co-operating as an ordinary couple sometimes; and as one of a group of six, with some members being naturally dominant, I felt I had lost all autonomy.

I had always assumed, complacently perhaps, that Steph and I were really like-minded. After all, we’d both felt drawn to this radical social experiment. But when, at one meeting, I made a comment that Sue, a fierce feminist, took as sexist, Steph joined her in rounding on me angrily. It came as quite a shock, although I suppose I asked for it. Looking back now, I can see that I had inherited quite a lot of my dad’s misogyny. But then, I failed to recognise it as a danger sign. Beginning to feel a bit threatened in a way that I couldn’t quite identify I clung, vaguely alarmed, to our relationship, suggesting things like going for walks together, just we two. She wasn’t keen on this, saying that it went against the ethos of the group. So I found myself increasingly cast in the role of a reactionary square peg, not fully fitting in.

The group had decided that the only decent vehicle we owned, the fairly new little Datsun that had previously belonged to just Steph and me, should be swapped for a larger ‘community’ vehicle, in which we could all go out together. Swallowing my irritation at the thought of the best car I’d so far owned being so summarily disposed of, I suggested getting a larger car that would carry up to six people. The remainder could travel in the farm’s ancient Land Rover and/or old Austin A40 on those occasions when we wanted to travel en masse. But I was outvoted. It would have to be something like a minibus, it was decided, disregarding the fact that for what we would get for the Datsun, we’d have to settle for a much older bus. So that was that: our car was sold and an old minivan bought. We took it out, all of us, on a trip to the coast, like an old-time charabanc party, singing jolly songs and being generally convivial. I tried to feel positive, but didn’t really succeed. We reached a quiet beach and drove right onto it, a practice I’d always thought rather philistine, although it was difficult, admittedly, to do otherwise with so many children, some of them no more than toddlers, in tow. Later we went up onto the cliffs, with me bad-temperedly hanging onto intrepid Simon’s hand. Then we returned home, still singing. It wasn’t as much fun as I remembered childhood Sunday School trips being. I really didn’t enjoy myself that day.

Other differences were surfacing. I found myself secretly at odds with the others on another philosophical issue: that of social security. The others, like people in other communes near us, had no problem with claiming unemployment benefits to subsidise our unorthodox lifestyle, whereas I felt that it was a little hypocritical to on the one hand eschew ‘straight’ society and on the other hold out a hand for help or subsidy provided from taxes raised by conventional taxpayers. Benefits were for the genuinely unfortunate, not those simply choosing a particular lifestyle. But I couldn’t voice such individualistic heresy. And then there was the question of work division. I was feeling increasingly peeved that whilst I was going out to do a not very inspiring conventional job to help keep the enterprise afloat and then doing things (that, admittedly, I wanted to) at the weekend like milking and gardening (and even being called on, to my alarm, to share in the cooking), others in the group were much less industrious. I grumbled quietly about this to Steph, who said, philosophically, that we all had varying capacities (I could have added ‘inclinations’) for work.

So, gradually, differences of attitude and outlook were opening between us. Perhaps, to be fair, it was also a question of commitment. For me disillusionment was setting in quickly, but Steph was more willing to give the project a fair crack. But it wasn’t just ourselves who were having relationship difficulties. Both of the other couples were having a hard time and, all living  together as artificially close as we were, rows and arguments were conducted very publicly. Sometimes sides were taken that only drove wedges deeper between couples, rather than support and moderation being given.

But still, I told myself, it would just have to be worked at. We were grown up people after all, not immature teenagers.

Christmas came. I wanted to have a break from things, have a little respite in normalcy. I wanted us, as a nuclear family, to visit my parents. My mum was desperate to see her grandchildren. But it led to a serious row. Steph absolutely didn’t want to be away from the farm for Christmas and, grudgingly, I conceded. It was agreed though that we go to Stamford for the New Year. We had a rather strained and very long journey through the snow in the minibus, not a very economical vehicle but it was the best of our motley collection. Going in the Land Rover, at fifteen mpg at best, would  have cost a  fortune, and  the A40  couldn’t be spared.

The few  days  at  Stamford  were  an  ordeal   of  trying  to  keep  up  a pretence of normalcy. It didn’t work very well, and my astute mum knew there was something wrong but said nothing. The journey back was worse still. I felt a very strong sense of foreboding. Something dreadful was going to happen.

After two days back, it did. Steph suggested that the best thing would be for us to part. She saw I was clearly unhappy and wanted out, but she wanted to stay. Our positions were irreconcilable. Neither would concede to the other’s wishes. Still trying to cling to a marriage that was dissolving before my eyes, I hung on for several days, but it was impossible. Finally it became obvious that I would have to go, alone. I won’t discuss the final collapse, and I won’t get into blame-the-other-party self-justification. I didn’t then (I felt very bitter) but now, half a lifetime later, I blame myself. If I had been a better husband, given more of myself to her and the children, she wouldn’t have felt she had to choose the option that excluded me. I don’t know whether our marriage would have endured had we not gone to the commune. Perhaps; perhaps not. I’ll never know.

It was shattering disillusionment, with the pain of breaking up piled remorselessly on top. Of course we were hopelessly naïve in trying such a reckless venture without a sufficiently clear idea of how we’d make it viable in practical terms. It was a giga-B(C?)M. And in our arrogant rejection of the conventional (not to mention universal) nuclear family concept, we’d quite failed to anticipate the probable emotional difficulties of living in a – sort of – extended family unbound by ties of blood.

As for the idea that it was somehow much more desirable for our children to regard the people responsible for their existence as friends rather than parents (yes, both statuses would be ideal, but not the first replacing the second), it was simply woolly idealism. It missed the point: that of mutual respect, earned (which, sadly, I didn’t do sufficiently) rather than to be expected as of right.

And yet, we were driven by dreams of an ideal world. We were on an express train rushing us breathlessly to an inevitable destination, into a cul-de-sac, travelling so fast we couldn’t get off. The rainbow had beckoned. No amount of sensibleness would have dissuaded us.

So there I was, in a situation I couldn’t have imagined six months earlier. I was totally adrift, with no wife, no family, no emotional security. And broke. Later on, when things were calmer, I suggested a formula to the group for regaining some of the money I’d lost. I would accept 20% of the capital we’d taken in (because five Needhams had joined and four were still there) minus an amount in lieu of supporting our three children. Which actually left very little at all. They agreed, but our capital had virtually all been swallowed up and although they tried, they couldn’t easily repay even that. In the end I wrote it off.

Meanwhile, I had to find somewhere to stay. We had got to know a lot of other people living alternative lifestyles – dropouts if you will – in our part of Carmarthenshire. One of them was Tony. In his sixties and drawing his pension, he was divorced and currently in a rather unlikely on-off relationship with Ally, an American hippy in her twenties. The reason for his attraction to her was obvious, but I couldn’t imagine what she saw in him, nice chap as he was. Indeed, her commitment was rather haphazard, as she’d frequently be lured away by men of her own age in those licentious days of ‘free love’, giving poor old Tony emotional hell. One of her desertions coincided with my fraught exit from the farm, and as lonely Tony wanted a companion and I needed a roof over my head, I moved in with him.

He was quite a character. My old workmate John would have loved him. He looked just like my imaginary bucolic concertina player described in that earlier idyllic harvest supper, crossed with a musician from Jethro Tull or Fleetwood Mac. An ex-docker from Bristol, he liked to describe himself as ‘the oldest hippy in Wales’. He certainly looked the part, with his fashionable waistcoat, collarless shirt and corduroys suspended by braces over his ample belly. His wire framed spectacles and balding white hair and beard gave him an uncanny resemblance to the last Archbishop of Canterbury, but without the mitre. He had the same skill in dispensing wisdom too, although Tony’s, bestowed on me as we sat around his Rayburn, was more homespun in nature. It used to amuse me when he slipped into the 70s mid-Atlantic youth vernacular and referred to girls as ‘chicks’.

He lived in a cottage near the farm. It was quite primitive, without mains water. His supply came in a trickle from a nearby spring, and Tony persuaded it into the house by means of a very Heath-Robinson contraption consisting of an old bath, other plastic storage tanks, a pump and various valves and switches. This was all above ground, outside and vulnerable to frost and every sort of contamination. I think it was supposed to be fully automatic, but it wasn’t, and every so often the supply would fail, whereupon Tony would rush outside and tinker with it (or perhaps he recited some mysterious Druidic incantation) and the supply would magically reappear. He was very proud of it, having invented it himself, and regaled me with a long and detailed explanation of its principles, which I didn’t understand at all.

There was no bathroom, apart from a somewhat basic shower room fed by Tony’s device, partitioned off from the kitchen/ sitting room (just the one room) containing the cottage’s only heat source, the Rayburn. The toilet was of the caravan ‘portapotty’ variety and situated in an outhouse. The interior of the cottage was heavy with a pungent spicy smell, which may have been joss sticks, or cannabis, or possibly both (I’m so innocent about drugs, I’ve no idea if they have a smell). It was the case though that Tony, in his ubiquitous VW camper van (this vehicle was de rigour for hippies then) visited Morocco every so often to buy his supplies of it, smuggling them back to Britain in a cunning secret compartment.

Life as a ‘bachelor’ with Tony was obviously quite a culture shock, both in terms of reduced status and lifestyle, but at least I was out of an unpleasant situation. Although I felt quite emotionally fragile, there was also an underlying sense of relief that the threatening, unidentifiable thing I’d felt coming had now arrived. I knew what it was. Nothing worse could happen now. At least there was the job, mundane as  it  was, to  keep  me  occupied and  fend  off  brooding self-pity to some extent. I’ve often found since then that if I’m troubled in any way, work is a hedge against depression. There was also the practical point that now my wages were my own and not going into a communal pot. On a financial level I’d regained autonomy. That was a good feeling. They could keep their caring and sharing.

A few weeks of this slightly strange existence with Tony passed. I wasn’t exactly happy, but at least, I felt, I was master of my own destiny again. At one point Tony disappeared off to Morocco for supplies, leaving me to myself. The first time I’d lived entirely alone, I found it wasn’t too intolerable, and certainly less bad than living with others in a state of stress. My old work mates, having learned of my disaster, kindly came on a support-giving and cheering-up visit. They brought a letter from my erstwhile boss saying how sorry he was and offering me my job back if I wanted it. When they left I wrote back thanking him for the offer but declining it. I said that I was currently in a rather confused state and didn’t really know what I wanted.

Tony returned. But then, who should walk sheepishly through the door wearing a guilty expression, with her woolly hat, beads and rucksack, but Ally. She’d ended her latest fling she said, and now she wanted to try again with Tony. They embraced tearfully, and I muttered a reason to excuse myself and left them to their reconciliation. So now we were a slightly awkward three. Ally didn’t seem to mind my presence, far from it; she would embarrass me by wandering around uninhibitedly naked, as did Tony, during their showering sessions.

Whatever they thought about things, I felt that three was decidedly a crowd. I’d had enough of unusual living situations. I asked Tony if he knew of anyone I could lodge with. Yes, he said, he had some friends who might welcome a paying guest. He’d introduce me. We went to see them.

They were a couple in late middle age, who I took to be married but actually weren’t. Len was a small wiry man with a sharp face permanently sporting a slender roll-up cigarette. Sally was about twice his height, with incredibly long legs accentuated by the trousers she always wore. They were both ‘retired’ and lived in a cottage too. We chatted, I told them my troubles, they were sympathetic and said yes; I could stay with them. I offered what I supposed was a reasonable rent, but Sally wouldn’t hear of taking so much. A pound or two would be plenty, she said. I tried to press her with more, but she was adamant, so we settled on the two pounds, plus some help from me with their garden at the weekends. They wanted to grow a lot of stuff. I thought that a pretty good deal. I collected all my worldly goods from Tony’s and moved in.

The house was even more primitive, if anything, than Tony’s. His was two storeyed, but this was simply two ground-floor rooms, one of them a bedroom, with a tiny lean-to scullery, their ‘kitchen’, at the rear. This also served as the ‘bathroom’, but it didn’t even contain a shower. Ablution in any sort of complete way was impossible in that house. The house was pretty much like Kingsnordley and some of my later places would originally have been. Like Tony’s, the toilet was of the chemical variety – although Len and Sally didn’t bother with such niceties – and situated in an old touring caravan in the garden. As there was so little room in the house, this (the caravan I mean, not the toilet) was to be my bedroom. Not that there was much difference. Being so cheek-by-jowl with the toilet and its untreated contents, I spent the minimum time possible in there. Late to bed and early to rise: that was the watchword. One of my helping jobs, I soon discovered, was to periodically decant the portapotty’s contents onto the compost heap and cover them with a layer of compost. It’s a wonder we didn’t all get typhoid.

The house was only marginally cleaner. They had several dogs, Yorkshire terriers, and for some reason they didn’t bother to house train them, simply giving the dogs a mild scold after every accident and wiping or scooping up the messes. Len and Sally were astonishingly poverty-stricken. Sally baked all her own cakes. It was always to the same recipe: a rather anorexic fruit cake, where the mixed fruit was brought out of the cupboard, shown to the mix, a meagre half-handful added and the rest returned to the cupboard for another day. Worse, she was too mean (or genuinely too poor) to buy any utensils. Her rolling pin for pastry was a bottle (‘Perfectly adequate’, she used to say), and for mixing cake ingredients she used the washing up bowl.

Sally had a unique way of relaxing. She would sit near the fireplace with one long, incredibly supple leg raised fully vertical and resting on the high mantelshelf. She was able to do this, she said, because in her youth she’d been in one of those high kicking dancing troupes, like the Tiller Girls, in Variety. Hence the long legs. Later, when too old to dance, she’d become a wardrobe mistress in films.

Len had had an equally interesting background. He’d been in the army during the war, in the Long Range Desert Group (the ‘Desert Rats’) in North Africa. He used to go on highly dangerous semi-suicidal missions where the aim was to terrorise the enemy by infiltrating their front line, killing as many as possible and then melting back into the night. He loved it, he told me, as if describing a game of Scrabble. He stayed on as a regular after the war, still volunteering for all the dangerous stuff, and when finally compelled to leave the army was at a loss as to what to do with his qualifications. So he went into the only other dangerous job he could think of: he became a film stunt man. I really can’t think of a greater contrast between any two people than him and me.

Sally and Len had got together while they were both in the film industry. Both earning pots of money, they lived a lavish lifestyle of Jaguar cars, champagne and St Tropez. But whilst Len was good at throwing himself off buildings and Sally was good with frocks, they were hopeless at financial management. They spent as quickly as they earned it, giving no thought to the future, and when Len finally, reluctantly, had to retire they were flat broke. So they ended up in one of the poorest parts of Britain, slumming it in a rural hovel without a brass farthing between them.

In spite of the poverty, I seemed to get off to a good start with them. They were certainly characters. Childless, they seemed to take me to their bosom almost like an adoptive son. Perhaps there might be a future for me with them, provided that whatever arrangement we had was sensible, not airy-fairy, and viable. When I mentioned them to my mum during my next phone call she was quite supportive. I suppose they came across as relatively conventional compared with my erstwhile partners. ‘There you are’, she said, ‘one door closes and another opens’. But her optimism was ill founded. It quickly became clear that I had nothing at all in common with these people as far as values and aspirations went. In one way though they were probably quite like me: prone to intense enthusiasms followed by rapid disillusionment. After only a few weeks they were seeing me as less and less of an asset. As was only to be expected I suppose, with his character, Len was fine when you were on the right side of him. But he certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly, and if you crossed him he could be quite unpleasant. There was one time when I’d used his rotavator in the garden, struggling in the wet heavy clay as he and Sally sat indoors smoking and drinking her weak tea. When I finished I put the machine away not clean enough for his military-standard liking, and really suffered the power of his wrath.

Another time, I transgressed and he almost threw me out of the house there and then. I asked to be allowed to stay until the morning and he finally relented. I kept well out of his way for the rest of that day, and by the morning the marching orders had been forgotten. But it was clear that I wasn’t really wanted. Sally was now saying that she couldn’t afford to support me. I offered to pay the actual cost of my keep, plus some, and now she took it, but the relationship had soured.

It was obvious that I would have to go. And that what I needed was my own place. I looked around the estate agents in Carmarthen. In those days, cottages, particularly un-modernised ones, were still cheap – in Wales I could pick one up for £5,000 or so. I found one for sale in a village and went to look at it after my delivery round. It was vacant and I’d borrowed the keys to be able to look inside. It was quite nice: small, but big enough. If I went in for it, it would be a confirmation that my marriage was indeed over and now I’d be living alone. Well, that was doable. I’d had a try-out of it at Tony’s. It wasn’t the ideal situation: the prospect of the rest of my life possibly alone was daunting, if not rather frightening. I was still hopelessly insecure; indeed when we first split up I was terrified at the thought of being alone and unloved. But I could cope with alone-ness for a while, anyway. Until I found love again.

So I was very tempted by this little house. Just think, I told myself, it would be mine, all mine, to do with as I pleased in a completely autonomous way. I could be completely selfish. I’d be doing what I’d begun to realise was my real passion, my own thing. Apart from the emotional lack, it could be a first step up out of the chasm I’d fallen into. I thought about it all the next day.

But then, atypically for me, realism kicked in. It would be nice to have a project, but I would still be spending many of my waking hours doing a mind-numbing job. It was hardly what I’d come to Wales to do. Also, there was the small matter of being broke. I would not be able to find a deposit for a mortgage, and would really struggle on my small van driver’s wage to service one and any building costs. It wasn’t a practicable proposition. I’d just have to admit defeat about the Welsh rural dream. There was only one thing to be done.

I penned a letter to Cyril:

 

   Dear Cyril,

   I’ve been thinking long and hard about my situation. There seems to be no                                 

   future for me in Wales. Is your kind offer of my job back still open?

 

 

He replied almost by return post:

Dear John,

   When do you want to start?                         

 

 

 

 

 

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About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
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One Response to Perceptions of war

  1. Lae_M says:

    Thanks for taking the time to visit LaeLand and read a post. Please come back soon.

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