Hope you’re all well. I’m fine. Thanks for asking.
In the spirit of National Storytelling Week, which runs from 30 January to 6 February, I posted the following on LinkedIn.
“As seas carve coastlines”
My father was 13 when the war broke out.
He was walking home from school one day in September 1940 when he saw one of the first Luftwaffe bombs fall from the sky over London. It fell not too far from his house. He thought little of it at the time.
The next day, he and his ten-year-old brother were evacuated to Haywards Heath; their eight-year-old sister was sent to Eastbourne.
At the railway station when he first arrived, people passed him and his brother by: “We were a little annoyed. They wanted girls.”
Some say the first casualty of war is innocence; others, the truth. But perhaps it’s choice.
My father wanted to study science A Levels. They were his passion. He ended up studying French, English, and Latin from scratch.
He loved football, but there weren’t any official teams to join. He and friends kicked an old footy about in scrubland after school.
He loved art. Art supplies were hard to come by.
And yet he looked back on those times fondly.
He recalled with affection his school class chasing after their English teacher, Mr Wilson, along country lanes, they on foot, the teacher on his bike. Mr Wilson would recite G.K. Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse” as the kids ran breathlessly behind.
And so, during those early, formative years of his life, the hedgerows and fields of Haywards Heath were his entire world.
And, far from home, with limited options, and few luxuries, he learned some of life’s essential truths.
He learned of life’s unpredictability. The importance of playing the hand you’re dealt. The need to make do. The need to get on with things.
His actions were informed by certain unspoken values: an absence of entitlement; a keen realisation that life could be worse, and that others have it far worse than you. Never take anything too seriously, least of all yourself. Nothing is ever as bad or as good as you think it is.
The father I knew was never one to make a fuss. Indefatigably unflappable, he never lost his cool: an important quality, I imagine, when in 1973, the year I was born, he became headmaster of Britain’s largest school at the time – one of the first purpose-built comprehensives: St Kevin’s in Kirkby, Merseyside. It had over 2,000 boys. It was a tough job in a tough area, but he fell in love with the place. Old boys remember him more for his tea and sympathy, than his reliance on the cane. One of his first changes as head was to get rid of streaming, which he felt lowered expectations and encouraged complacency. He hated the way those in lower sets were expected to do less well than the rest. He felt that teachers should be ambitious for every child.
The war steered his life course. In his 58 years of teaching, he taught those subjects chosen for him by wartime: French, English, and Latin, along with History and Greek for good measure. And I, in turn, went on to share his love of languages and went into teaching. And so his wartime went on to shape me, and so back to the present.
The current pandemic will shape, as surely as seas carve coastlines, young people today.
We’re right to worry about them, and much needs to be done. But I don’t doubt they’re learning many of the lessons my father learned through the privations of war.