Why I write about war
In 1944, in the last, long winter of the war my grandmother fed her family on stolen tulip bulbs. Every morning she cooked some of the bulbs to an ugly, brown flecked paste and her children cried, their chill-blained fingers red and their ankles poking thinly from beneath their fraying pants. When the coal ran out she put the children to bed in their coats and crept out of the house in the dark to steal branches from the ornamental trees that lined the park nearby.
My grandfather was ordered to report to a work camp. “When soldiers come looking for your father,” my grandmother told her children, “Tell them you don’t know where he is.” Even though he would be above them, hiding from the Nazis in the tight, dark space between the nailed down floor boards of the second floor and the ceiling of the first. Sweating, cold and the spiders running over his feet in the dark. The day the soldiers came she stared at their shiny boots, praying that the children would remember their lies and that the soldiers would not notice the wood dust beneath her bitten nails.
My grandmother survived the war but she would spend the rest of her life living beneath the weight of what she had seen. Years after her death, while researching my PhD I recognised in her the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress. In the veterans of other wars, I saw my grandmother’s inability to find joy, her bitter sadness and the myriad of ailments caused by a life time of never ending stress. I have my grandmother to thank for my fascination with history and also for the claustrophobia that is shared by all her descendants.
I write about war because it terrifies me. It terrifies me as a human being but most of all it terrifies me as a mother. Once you have loved as a parent you can’t help but see the world as a place that’s populated by other people’s children. And it seems to me that when we talk about other people’s children as soldiers they become the tools of nationhood and part of some wider agenda. When what we really need to do is think of them as a precious part of someone else’s family – a child, or a brother or a parent or a grandparent, someone’s lover, spouse or best friend. I think of my grandparents and their war years – and the way they eclipsed all the years that followed like a partial shadow across the sun.
I also write about war because wars are the flashpoints of history and history shapes our future as much as it defines our past. How do you know where you are going if you do not understand where you have been? We have had conscription in my lifetime. And, as a parent, the thought that we might have it again is truly terrible to me. My grandmother taught me that a power hungry lunatic with no conscience and an ability to find a scape goat minority for a period of economic strife can forever change the world. Change the world enough and once again the children of this country could go to war based on a birth date lottery. It’s a terrible thought, but it’s not unthinkable.
Fifty-five years after the war ended my grandmother was given a potted tulip as a gift. Her eldest son, a man almost old enough to retire, accidentally dropped it. When he picked up the shards of pot and the spilled soil, the smell of the broken bulb made him gag. I have thought about that a lot. Fifty-five years is not enough time to erase the memories of a boy caught up in a war. For those in the front line the effects must be just as catastrophic. So, I write about war to honour my grandparents and to honour all of those whose lives have been forever changed by conflict. I write to keep their memories alive. I write that we might say ‘lest we forget’ every day of the year and not just on the 25th April.