Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Class

RAF boysThe way it was always told to me, not long after Chamberlain had declared war on Germany, my grandfather – barely 19 years of age – had hotfooted it around to the RAF recruiting office to sign up. He no doubt fancied himself kitted out with one of those stiffened scarves and leather goggles and chewing on a choice cigar from the comfort of his cockpit as he strafed a few Heinkels with a careless flick of his thumb on the joystick.

And who wouldn’t? The RAF, even before the Battle of Britain, had an air of the glams about it. I mean, dash it all, but those chaps were just plain dashing. Why yomp across France when you can sit at the controls of possibly the best plane ever built and let a Rolls-Royce Merlin carry you all the way to the theatre of battle in style?

But the RAF didn’t want my grandfather. They told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t have the brains to be a spitfire pilot or any other kind of pilot. He wasn’t made of the right stuff, see. He wasn’t educated properly. He’d made it through a decent enough school but he was indelibly working class. As far as the RAF were concerned he was a yomper if ever there was one. They no doubt looked at him through their steely monocles and muttered under their breaths, “Not one of us.”

And so despite, the urgent country-wide call to arms, the RAF declined my grandfather’s enthusiastic offer and the legend of The Leamington Baron was shot down before it even got off the runway.

If my grandfather was ever embittered by this show of classism he never showed it. He was resilient and perhaps just plain pragmatic enough to depart the RAF recruiting office with a cheery wave and an “Okay gov’nor” and hop over the threshold of the recruiting office immediately next door and find himself signed up by the Royal Navy. They snatched his hand off and had him rated as able-bodied before you could say “hard to starboard”.

He loved his time in the Navy. He loved the travel. He loved the camaraderie. Not that he was blinded by his love – he didn’t like the torpedoes, or the magnetic mines or the time his ship had its stern completely blown off and they had to rely on luck and the skill of their captain to limp them miraculously to the dicey safety of a Maltase port – but I can see from his war photos that the Navy changed him. It broadened his outlook. It completed his education in a way that a stint with the RAF would never have done. So he was never a member of a gentleman’s club or got a nickname like “Squiffy” or “Ack-Ack”... but he got to see India, North and South Africa, Malta, Iceland, even a few Russian ports.

He saw parts of the world that a boy from the working class slums of Leamington Spa would not ordinarily have got to see. And though the officers on board ship were just as high born as those of the RAF there was a closeness and equality (of sorts) born of spending months and months together in the equivalent of a tin can with no other company than the burly chaps around you. The respect that was engendered went both ways. In that respect war is a great leveller.

If it wasn’t for my Nan’s reluctance to travel I have no doubt my grandfather would have left these shores far behind him after the war and I’d be writing to you from South Africa. My grandfather loved his shore leave there and often spoke fondly of it in the years before his death in 2009. Not that he particularly regretted staying put in Blighty – he and my Nan gadded about quite a bit during their retirement years and saw as much of the world as they could – but I’m sure he occasionally dreamed of what could have been; if things had been different.

For all that though my grandfather did well for himself after the war. Yes, he did manual work but he was well paid for it. He aspired to be comfortable and he achieved it. He ended up owning his own house and car and was as far removed from those childhood slums as it was realistic to expect to be.

At the end he could have looked those RAF officers in the eye and got a polite nod in return. He’d earnt his wings.

The first casualty of war might be innocence but one of the last was class.



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29 comments:

Gorilla Bananas said...

I thump my hairy chest in approval of any veteran of the Royal Navy - we gorillas were full-square behind Nelson at Trafalgar.

Have you ever considered having a nautical experience yourself? I've always though there ought to be a Captain Findus as well as a Captain Birds-Eye, and you've definitely got the beard for the job.

John Gray said...

that was quite moving
a nice tribute and a personal story

Steve said...

Gorilla Bananas: and not a single joke about having fish fingers. I salute you in return.

John: thank you, kind sir.

Alienne said...

It's not called the Senior Service for nothing. Those Johnny Newcomes in their new fangled flying machines are deluded if they think they are superior. Where were they when we built the empire? Huh!

Steve said...

Alienne: damned right! Where was the RAF at the battle of Trafalgar, eh?

Marginalia said...

What a missed opportunity. You in South Africa.

Steve said...

Marginalia: yeah. Me and Nelson. We'd've been like that.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

What about the Mary Rose? Er maybe forget the Mary Rose...

Neat to have a dip into your grandfather's life with you, as you work your way through that treasury of photographs that he left behind.

Thanks for the email, I will get back to you.

Steve said...

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden: I've barely skimmed the photographs in all honesty though I have now scanned all the war ones. It's a fascinating journey.

English Rider said...

It's obvious how proud you are of your Grandfather. It was surely the RAF's loss.

Nana Go-Go said...

What a lovely tribute to your Grandad.

Steve said...

English Rider: and the navy's gain... and also mine. Who knows how things might have turned out if he had joined the RAF? The survival rate for pilots was not good.

Nana Go-Go: thank you.

Mark said...

My paternal grandfather was in the navy and loved his time there; my mother's father was an officer in the RAF. I've always been pleased that we don't have national service, but then again I often wonder if I would have enjoyed aspects of the forces.

Nota Bene said...

Glad he prospered emotionally, socially, and economically

Being Me said...

I love hearing these stories. Funny thing is, though, if he had settled in South Africa, you probably wouldn't be writing from there.... You probably wouldn't even be here! I find it fascinating to ponder things like that - past decisions of not only our loved ones but those who also determined the course of certain parts of their lives. If he had joined the RAF, who knows? He may not even have returned.
Thank you so much for allowing me to think on your family's journey a little today. Always such a gift.

the fly in the web said...

A great tribute to your grandfather...and as to class and recruiting, don't start mother on it or you'll be there for hours while she compares and contrasts Wrens, Waafs and ATS.

Martin Lower said...

What a nice story. We all arrive as the people we are through luck.
My grandparents were keen to emigrate to Canada back in the thirties, apparently. My grandfather decided against it as his parents were both getting on a bit, and he thought he might be needed. By the time he was 'free' to leave, he was in his mid fifties and the chance had gone. Oh well.

Steve said...

Mark: me too. For all war is terrible I can't help thinking it was also an opportunity for many. Not that that can ever justifiy the immense loss of human life - but it changed the world in so many ways.

Nota Bene: I often wonder what kind of man he would have been if the war had never taken place. What kind of country this would have been.

Being Me: so true. Things could have worked out so differently and the world might have been spared the last 800 posts on this 'ere blog. Something to ponder indeed!

The fly in the web: just the discussion for a cold winter's night. Throw a log onto the fire and get some scones in.

Martin: luck definitely plays a big part of it. Both my grandfather's brothers also went to war - both in the army - and all three of them returned home relatively unscathed. When I think of how many families lost people they loved I can't help but marvel how lucky my family was.

Steve said...

Martin: keep meaning to say - I seem totally unable to leave a comment on your blog. I've tried several times now but it just won't accept me!

Very Bored in Catalunya said...

Sounds like the RAF lost out big time and your Grandfather sounds like a true gent.

Lovely tribute and post. x

Trish @ Mum's Gone To ... said...

Ah Steve, this is such a thought-provoking post; superbly written, as usual, and so full of love and pride.

Keith said...

Great Piece.

And so very similar to my own grandparents story. I guess that was the experience of a lot of their generation, one of both liberation and experience, and then stepping back and almost putting all of that behind them and focusing on building a home and a world.

There is a thought here I can't quite express well, but feel keenly/

Katriina said...

What a wonderful tribute to your grandfather, and what a colourful and memorable and enviably fulfilling life he had. Isn't it interesting - it's often thought that the Princess Dianas and Barack Obamas of this world are those who are most memorable, when in fact it's normal, outstanding people like your grandfather whose lives fascinate and impress us. My own great-grandmother is someone who had that effect on me. Here's her story, if you are interested:
http://theheadspaceblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/alexandra-and-me.html

Mark said...

Ref: bothies (no need to publish this comment)

No limit on staying as such and I know in some areas people do use them as a base for few days. In practice, if you're sensible staying a few nights is not a problem. The Dulyn Bothy in Snowdonia is a good base for walking in the hills.

Steve said...

Very Bored in Catalunya: given how things might have turned out maybe the RAF's loss was my gain...

Trish: thank you, much appreciated.

Katriina: thank you for your comment. I will head over to yours and have a read. :-)

Mark: thank you for this. Opens up new possibilities for visiting Wales when cash is tight.

Jon said...

I come from a long line of sargeants. My grandfather was a sargeant yomper (until he got gassed out at Ypres; therafter he was more sedate), but my father made into the RAF. National service 1950-52.

Despite being a mere flight sargeant, he was sometimes allowed to drive, particularly when the officers (who did have names like "Buffy" and "Spanker") were a bit pissed and were having trouble finding the runways.

He even got a nickname. "Dusty."

Steve said...

Jon: he got his own nickname? Now that is truly acceptance.

About Last Weekend said...

A really beautiful story. There are so many war stories left untold. I could see this being a book

Steve said...

About Last Weekend: I wish I'd asked more questions when my grandfather was alive. At the time I didnt want to pry into painful memories... now I regret that so many of them are lost forever.