My Dad Wasn’t A Patriot

On Easter Friday when I was young, my dad would drag me out of bed early and drive to a bakery in Tottenham where he has gone with his dad as a boy. The bakery had green and cream tiles like a railway waiting room and must have been even older than the bakers who served hot cross buns straight from the oven.

I was 12, a compulsive joiner, a member of the table tennis club, a Boy Scout and went to Sunday school.

That year, on the way home from the bakery, the car rich in the smell of hot cross buns, I told dad that I had been selected – a rare privilege – to carry the Union Jack into church on Easter Sunday at the head of my scout troop. My dad didn’t go to church, but I thought he might make an exception.

‘Why don’t you come?’ I asked.

‘I’m not very keen on flags, son?’ he said, and changed the subject.

I didn’t think of this conversation again until Remembrance Sunday, in November, when the scouts were out again to form the backdrop for the squad of old soldiers who gathered at the War Memorial, chests heavy with medals, their dusty berets at jaunty angles.

My dad never went to this annual minute of silence, although he had six medals in an old tobacco tin in the drawer at home. He didn’t talk about the war when I was growing up – that generation didn’t, and what I learned about his service came out in bits and pieces when he was over 80 and enough years had passed for the rough edges to have smoothed away.

My dad had altered his birth certificate at 17 to make himself 18 and served as a gunner in the Royal Navy from 1939. His ship, HMS Alaska, was hit during the Battle of Narvik, in Norway, when dozens of the crew lost their lives. He survived two Arctic convoys and two things had remained firm in his mind: his mate being sliced in half by stray shrapnel as they stood behind their big gun; and watching boys his age from sunken merchant ships freezing to death in the icy sea. ‘Throw us a line, mate, throw us a line,’ they called, but the sailors had orders ‘from on high’ not to do so, not to slow the convoy fleeing from Luftwaffe Messerschmitts.

In 1942, dad joined the Royal Navy commandos and travelled on small boats up what he called the ‘chongs’ to rescue soldiers fleeing the Japanese advance through Burma. He could have applied for the Burma Star, medal No 7, but never bothered.

My father had gone into the war as a patriot and came out agreeing with William Pitt that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ He read Orwell, believed in fair play and common human decency. He had travelled all over the world and had come to see that ‘people are people,’ as he said. ‘No one is better than anyone else.’ 

He was proud of the NHS, believed strongly in trade unions, voted Labour, but was never active. He had come out of the war unscathed and suffered what they call survivor guilt. The memory of those boys dying in the Arctic Sea never left him.

For my dad, flag waving, war memorials and wearing poppies were symbols to say ‘we are all in this together.’ He had learned that we are not. He saw nationalism as a device used by the ruling class to bind us falsely together and make working people blame ‘foreigners’ for all their woes. 

If nothing else, one must hope Covid-19 will change that. The many thousands of doctors, nurses, drivers and cleaning staff in the NHS come from every corner of the world. The majority who have died from the virus are from Africa, Asia, China, Europe, the Caribbean. They are heroes. All of them. Like my dad.

My dad died before the coming of Trump, Johnson and Brexit. He wouldn’t have said much about them. He never did. But I know what he would have thought.

Do leave a comment in the box below. Thanks for reading. 

 

Posted in Blog.

26 Comments

  1. Great stuff Cliff , your writing is even more convincing when recounting “ true life “ than is you many fictional and semi fictional works . Keep up the good work , it’s great !

  2. That’s a lovely read and a very telling personal story. My Dad never said much about the war either, but I am to understand he was a bit of a lad. Served in the Royal Marines out East until he fell overboard from his ship on the Yangtze River in winter, caught pneumonia and was sick listed out. On recovery he joined the Royal Air Force and helped with the development of radar, based in Bristol. I have no idea how much real action he saw, or what the war meant to him. He was just very thankful when it was over, no medals, just a suit and a handshake.
    Thanks for telling your Dads story so poignantly.

  3. Your father experienced first hand the horror and destruction of war. He wanted nothing to do with its glorification when it was over. I know he loved his country but he simply could not stand the hypocrisy.

  4. Thanks for sharing your dad’s story. They ‘did their bit’ as we must try to do ours during these tough times.

  5. Thank you for writing, and sharing, this, Clifford. It neatly sews together various thoughts that regularly come to mind when I read the news.
    My parents were children of immigrants — all four of whom left desperate poverty in Croatia before WWI — which I think left them with a view that nationalism and flag-waving were important ways of showing that you were a good citizen who didn’t question authority and were keen to belong to their new “home”. From what I can remember from overheard conversations in 1960s San Francisco, that mindset was definitely challenged but never shaken off, despite my flabbergasted best efforts during the Regan era and beyond.

  6. Can smell the hot cross buns now.!

    Evocative memories from childhood and the hard truths and realities your Dad had to face.

    I happen to come across the Portuguese/Galician word: ‘Saudade’

    Easter always seems to carry that deep bittersweet sense of feeling happy and sad at the same time….

  7. I knew about your dad’s Arctic convoy horrors but not that he then served in Burma against the utterly brutal Japanese. forces.
    The rightwing ‘leaders we’re afflicted with at the moment wouldn’t get your dad at all, I think. Who could possibly imagine Trump risking his life for his country?

  8. For whom the bell tolls, Clifford. To each of us who hear it, we respond in our own inimitable way. My father saw no action, and like your father, he had no words to say about the war. I found out, when he was also in his 80s like yours, that he was in a reserve occupation. He was a scaffolder. After he died I was given some scrapbooks and albums that I’d never seen before. He was there in black & white faded photos. As a schoolboy champion boxer. As a Corinthian Casual (soccer team) forward in a team picture taken at the Oval, Kennington, their home ground. And several photos of him climbing around in war-damaged London. My favourite, if one can call it that, is my old man about forty feet in the air building a steel frame scaffold to stop St Thomas’s Hospital falling down after a severe bombing raid. The photo is the only high-quality one in the collection. It was published in the News Chronicle that day. My father bought the News Chronicle until it died in 1960. I still remember the last edition, which he brought home from work, going to the Alf Gover Cricket School on East Hill, Waandsworth, on his way home. He came to pick me up and see how I was getting on with batting lessons. The newspaper, like always, was neatly folded under his right arm, hugged tightly. Strange, I never saw him reading it over the years. Never.

  9. Fantastic story, and a lovely father.

    My father did not go to war. He was a scientist and a doctor. I only remember that we lived on lawsuits against the pharmaceutical industry and when he died, we had to pay the lawyer for the loss of a lawsuit against the health system. Today, perhaps he would have won it.

  10. Janet, the Right has the press and perverts the thinking of ordinary people who want to believe their government has their best interests at heart. Which they do not.

  11. This wonderfully poignant and beautifully melancholy memoir afforded me the opportunity to catch a glimpse of a time, a place and of a life that should be foreign to a Baby Boomer from the States. Yet, through Clifford’s homage to his father, I see my own, and I feel I better understand my own father now. Though my father grew up as a blond-haired Swedish immigrant living on the hardscrabble streets of Chicago’s South Side during the Great Depression of the1930s, the parallels between Clifford’s father and my own are striking, and I feel had the fortunes of war somehow thrown these two men together, they would have become friends. My father was too young to enlist, so he talked my grandfather into signing for him. This led to my dad joining the Navy and fighting against the Japanese as a landing craft coxswain who saw fierce action shuttling in troops and carrying back wounded at places such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Like Clifford’s father, my dad somehow managed to miraculously come home physically unscathed, yet mentally, an entirely different person. In my mind, there is no question why these men and women are called the Greatest Generation. And if there is a blessing that my father passed away when he did, it’s that even though as a young man he lived through unimaginable horrors of war, he was saved from knowing the horrors of the ignorance and intolerance of today’s Trumpist/Brexit world. This is not the world my father fought for.

  12. Thanks Clifford for the wonderful homage to your dad, very emotional for me as I knew him so well and I agree with every word you say. He had many other parts to his service in wartime which are worth researching. I’m sure you know them already. He was a true patriot who saved us all from the evil of Hitler and his mob. I certainly wouldn’t be here if he and millions of others hadn’t done that. God bless my old brother in law and you his lovely son.. Ted Lazarus.x

  13. Shawn, interesting to see the medals – they are the same as my dad’s. I also have them framed. The two old sailors were probably at some time at the same place at the same time.

  14. My father’s most memorable one-liner: “You’ll never go wrong with a good left foot.”

    You’ve definitely got the left foot.

  15. Nice piece Clifford. I’m have no doubt that your Dad quietly did far more than many of that generation who parade year on year and remind us incessantly of their service. They are probably the same veterans who don’t fully appreciate the brutality and sacrifice involved in wars in the last 30 years.

  16. Clifford, a very interesting story. A lot there about your dad I never knew and quite a few similarities with my dad’s story but also quite a few differences. Of course my dad – Reg – was one of Cliff’s older brothers and they must have spent their first 17 years growing up together, even sharing a bed, so one might expect some similarity of stories and views. Was Reg a patriot? Probably, but I don’t really know as he never discussed it.
    Reg was almost 20 when WW2 broke out so he didn’t have to volunteer – he was called up! He was put in the Kings Royal Rifles, packed off to Salisbury Plain for his basic training as an infantryman, then on a boat from Liverpool to Egypt via the Cape of Good Hope. He spent the next few years firstly being chased across North Africa by Rommel before chasing him back again and up through Sicily and Italy to Germany. His service record is full of famous place names like Tobruk, Tripoli, Benghazi, El Alamein, Messina and Monte Cassino. At some point he was captured and became a POW, escaped but was recaptured. He was then put into the custody of a German family who were responsible for his good behaviour and he was made to work in factories in the Ruhr.
    Nearly all of this I learnt from my mother after my father died. He simply didn’t talk about it at all. I don’t know what he witnessed but I think we can all imagine the horrors. Like Cliff he never attended any remembrance services but always watched the events at the Cenotaph on TV every November. One thing that did surface was the persistent hunger he experienced at the front which meant that whenever we sat down to eat as a family there was never any food left on anyone’s plate, ever! His experience also left him with a hard edge which meant he had no tolerance for people who he felt were whining about trivial issues.
    So I guess Cliff and Regs’ early life and war experiences were similar. That said it would appear that things differed in other spheres. Unlike Cliff, Reg was a staunch Tory. He believed that the Labour Party would be a disaster for the country and that Trade Unions were just a bunch of trumped up (excuse the pun) troublemakers. When I was young I remember him saying “too many people in this country think the country owes them a living”. It was only years later that I finally understood what he was getting at. He also was a supporter of the classic class system and was clear about his place in the social order of the time. For example, he believed that the army officer corps should come from the privileged classes and that the lower classes should be the cannon fodder. He said things that made a huge impact on how I later came to see the world. Things like “we can’t go in there, it’s for the posh people”. Really? Despite his views on social order one thing he did believe was that education was the way out of the poverty trap and for that I will be forever grateful.
    So was my dad a patriot? Like Cliff he probably was to start with but I think he came out of it wondering what it was all about and why? He adopted a very simple outlook on life, perhaps because he believed it was his destiny and he was just grateful to have survived. He would say things like “at the end of the day if there’s food on the table, a fire in the grate and a roof over our heads then life’s good”. What about tomorrow you would ask? “We’ll worry about tomorrow when it comes” he would say. Perhaps a good motto for these strange times we now live in. It brings focus to what is really important in life.

  17. Your father was a wise man, my granddad never wore his medals either, my gran never boasted things up, they held strong in their beliefs and were the generation that silently carried on with life, looking down on nobody.

    My partner and I were talking about the hypocrisy of some
    of the people standing outside clapping for our NHS, lot of them voted for Brexit for racial reasons, yet they stand there clapping for a multi-race of NHS workers and I bet they wouldn’t be so racist if it come to their own lives being saved!

    I’m a true believer myself that People are People no matter skin colour, sex preferences etc.

    Your dad was spot on, and I thank him for his service in a war that could have been avoided if only people showed kindness instead of greed and power 💓

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