I do not think I have mentioned before that, once loaded, my computer opens up with his phrase, ‘the computer is ready for you to talk to it.’ That is the normal and, indeed, prescribed procedure to start operations. But the fact is my Friend cannot remain formal for long and, in truth, alone with him in my black world I welcome and, I admit, encourage a touch of his informality. Therefore I was not surprised when he went on to say, “I am ready, willing and, I think, able to take down the dictation of your biographical memoirs, so please proceed.”
I had already told him that I would not be writing my autobiography. I have read quite a few in my time and, by their very nature, the auto biographer would have to be self-centred and as such, they must have some kind of egotistical, selective memory. Our famous Scottish poet Robert Burns said, “Wid the power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.” The poet has a point.
I will leave my story to an impartial biographer and, in the meantime, content myself by relaying some thoughts and impressions that come to mind. Before I do however, I have a confession to make. Two years ago I said I would not look back on my private life until I felt emotionally stronger. I thought I was ready now but I was wrong. I find the task painful.
With the benefit of hindsight, I see a very privileged kid, oblivious of, and protected from, the horrors that were taking place in the occupied countries of Europe; for the most part unconcerned with the woes of the times. For instance, there was never any thought in my mind that we would lose the war but, clearly, it was a close-run thing and the fear of invasion was such that it got to the point of the Government sending our gold reserves, and later our scientists and atomic research, across the Atlantic for dread of them falling into the enemy's hands.
A self-centred kid, oblivious of what was happening at the time in the concentration and death camps and later the gas chambers, even now I still shudder to think of what then I was blissfully unaware.
Looking back I find painful inconsistencies of my memories when compared to the realities as they affected me. I see that I came from a fairly wealthy family; the siblings from which went on to have very successful careers. My formal education was much better than I realised and the inconsistencies of memory to reality or fact equate to one factor - ‘hindsight.’
I already find it painful to think of my attitude as a child, compared to what the adults were going through .Now as an adult I look back with some sadness at my misunderstanding or lack of appreciation of the hardships of the times. However, as the well-known catchphrase goes, ‘I have started so I will finish.’
Ours was a great household for books and my mother, who was exceptionally well read, built up a large library. My father arranged that we received each day most national and local newspapers, magazines and of course all the comics. As a consequence, the family was very well informed and up-to-date with the news and current affairs of the time. There was always, at any given time, no, I should say at every given time, debates, discussions or noisy and sometimes irate arguments, about politics, religion, philosophy and anything that was anti-establishment. The problem was that they all had their own ideas as to what was ‘establishment’ and, to make matters more confusing for me, their strongly held views one week could change to something different by the following week.
My mother was a staunch Empire Loyalist and indeed tried to insist that we stood to attention when the national anthem was played on the radio or elsewhere. My eldest brother, who was in newspapers, was at one time ‘Father of the Chapel’ - some sort of trade union leader.
I was not aware of it at the time, but of course for the family to function well, and by and large it did, there had to be house rules and disciplines, rights and privileges, hand in glove with responsibilities, reacting to subtle changes to accommodate each individual 's development. For my part, being the last, it was probably a case of, ‘the buck stops here’ or, as I might have said some 10 years later, as a supercilious youth, eager to show off my limited Latin, “Denarius hic sistit” Life was in a state of flux and one had to be quick to keep up with the ever-changing scene.
But wait, I am getting ahead of myself. We are not yet at war and the family not yet fragmented. The arguments are still over worldly and altruistic subjects, not yet about those who used the last of the butter ration, or such.
I can recall annual holidays before the outbreak of war; the big family trunk sent on ahead to the holiday house taken for the school holiday period at Troon, (or some other place down the Clyde coast). The older family members would turn up when their particular commitments would allow.
I remember my eldest brother and his pal coming up on their motorbikes from England, with their faces almost completely covered with dead flies and other insects. They were as happy as sand boys. His pal later became a Spitfire pilot and, sadly, was lost over the North Sea. As children then, we had no thoughts of an impending war. We had the sea and broad beaches and built our castles not in the air but in the sands.
We younger children, oblivious as to what lay ahead, enjoyed those halcyon days but my father and mother, having survived the horrors of the first war, would be aware that Europe's statesmen were once again sleepwalking into another disaster. It might have been a case of triumph of hope over experience, but any thinking adult should have known what was to come - at least after Kristallnacht in 1938. Indeed, no one who read Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf, published some years before, should have been in any doubt as to his intentions; least of all the Germans who, (it is now convenient to forget), brought him to power democratically.
For my part however, a seven-year-old, having confidence and naive trust in the wisdom of the ‘mature ones’, had no inkling of the radical events that were to follow. Yet, I sensed the difference that summer in 1939. My father could only join us for a short time and my oldest brothers and sisters not at all. The laughter seemed to have gone out of the family - everybody seemed so serious. The talk was about pontificating over Czechoslovakia, a proud Poland, a pussyfooting Government, puritanical Nazis and pacifist politicians.
I learnt lots of new words that summer but, even so, it took me a while to get over my confusion when I heard my father say to my mother, “I am ashamed at our present leaders’ tolerance of the Nazis. The sound of silence is deafening.” Two months later, on the 3rd September 1939 our nation was at war. Events moved swiftly thereafter. It was a confusing time with the issuing of gas masks, identity cards, ration books and such like. No panic but much hustle and bustle, so much so that I cannot answer for the chronological accuracy of my memories over that period.
I must say that my brother, only a few years my elder, whilst probably agreeing on the cardinal points, would have quite a different interpretation of events. Selective memory cannot be avoided.
The youngest ones, being my brother and me, were attached to labels with our names and address and religion, (in our case Church of Scotland), then evacuated to a small town in Perthshire .We were temporarily accommodated, along with many other children, in a private girls’ school, which was closed for the summer holidays, prior to more permanent dispersal. At this point it seemed to be agreed that my eldest sister with her four-year-old daughter and her baby son, should join us as a family unit. This 27-year-old girl, her husband fighting with the Eighth Army, (the Desert Rats), was now saddled with the problem of taking care of four children.
It was arranged that we would be billeted in a large, underused church manse; partially occupied by a young bachelor minister and his widowed bitch of a mother. It turned out that she refused to honour the agreement with the church, giving us only flea-infested mattresses, laid on a bare attic floor and accessed only from an open, outside stairway. There had to be absolutely no use of the house or its facilities and furthermore we shared this accommodation with mice and cockroaches! The old bitch had my sister in tears every night. When my mother heard of the situation she came to take us away telling ‘the lady of the house’ that she, along with her minister son, were the most unchristian Christians she had ever come across. We were very glad to be back home - bombs or no bombs.
While we were away my eldest brother had joined the army and at some stage thereafter my other brother had joined the Royal Navy. He was on minesweepers and I remembered him returning for a short leave from Malta convoy duties and, on opening his case to give me some present, a stream of cockroaches scurried from his case across the kitchen floor. I remember thinking that these Maltese cockroaches looked no different from the cockroaches in the damp church manse attic. We got rid of all our uninvited guests in double quick time and I could not help thinking that that was probably what that dreadful old bitch was saying about us too.
I remember enthralling my school pals with stories that, when what was left of the convoys limped into Malta harbour, my brother sent down Royal Naval ratings on board the damaged ships to deal with the dead so that the merchant seaman didn't have to handle their own shipmates. The procedure was that the corpses would be tightly stitched up in canvas by the sail maker, who always remembered to include a heavy round shot so that the body would sink to the bottom, and the last stitch went through the nose to ensure the body was dead. When my brother heard of me telling this he strongly disassociated himself from such fanciful tales but no matter, I was popular and gaining wider audiences.
I was beginning to realise, like politicians and the press, not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. However using words like sail maker and round shot lead me to think I might have got it all from a Hornblower novel.
Another story, that gained me a few cigarette cards for the telling, was when it was so cold on convoy that, when he laid his un-gloved hand on the bridge rail, for a few moments, it froze to it such that he could not remove it without stripping off all the skin from his palm. I remembered afterwards that I had forgotten to tell them it was not on the Malta convoys but the Murmansk convoys this time. No matter, with the level of geography education we were receiving at that time my school pals would not be able to differentiate between the weather conditions of the Mediterranean and the Arctic! I wondered, years later, if Nicholas Monsarrat when writing his famous book ‘The Cruel Sea’ had got hold of my story.
So, 1940-1943 saw us, for the most part, back in the big city of Glasgow - once known as the Second City Of The Empire, but still a noisy bustling metropolis; the centre of much of the nation's shipbuilding and engineering. At that time life for me was a kaleidoscope - a mixture of all classes: upper, middle, lower and under.
I had school pals from professional homes, pals from working class families, pals from families that never worked and never intended to. We were kids from all walks of life, thrown together, only by the circumstances of war and, in some measure, bound and stitched jointly like some random, coloured, patchwork quilt. In later years some grew up to become doctors, sea captains, one a top scientist, two Members of Parliament - one a Secretary of State, and a Privy Councillor, and others became industrialists and business men, and there was me. I was, amongst other things, an adviser to two Governments and built up a development programme, valued well in excess of £400 million. On the other hand there were one or two who spent some time as guests in His Majesty's Prison.
We had the blackout and all that that could entail but, for the first few months, there was no serious bombing. After a raid we would search for shrapnel and had rules and terms and conditions for trading. For instance, shrapnel had a higher street value when hot and it could be exchanged for cigarette cards of Dixie Dean, Alan Morton, Gerry Dawson, Stanley Matthews or Tommy Lawton - the great football stars of the day, or film stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Ronald Coleman or Greta Garbo. A good negotiator could probably get three for the price of one piece of hot shrapnel.
Any air raid was likely to be well and truly over before we hit the streets therefore any shrapnel found had to be smuggled into the house and heated under the grill to maximise its value. Looking back, none of us, of course, had read Adam Smith's ‘Wealth Of A Nation’ and indeed, few could read at all - literacy and numeracy not being high on the list of priorities.
However, one could see the first signs of the street-wise kids operating in his law of ‘supply and demand’ and thereafter the law of ‘diminishing returns’. With the bottom falling out of the market after the Clydebank blitz, there was certainly no scarcity value of shrapnel after that dreadful event.
In 1941 the Luftwaffe made an all-out attempt to destroy the shipbuilding and engineering capacity along the Clyde and, particularly Clydebank and its engineering works, and the fuel stores at Bowling.
Little was mentioned of this devastating raid. Evidently, Winston Churchill, for reasons of morale, didn't want the British population to know that the Luftwaffe could fly as far north. In fact they flew from France.
Joyce's family suffered greatly in that raid although I did not know that until many years later. The intensive bombing took place during March 1941 and while there was some industrial damage, the main effect, as is often the case, was on the civilian population - only seven houses remaining undamaged, 1200 killed and many more seriously injured.
It was a funny period. Garden railings were being cut down everywhere - no not everywhere. It was in fact quite a select operation. Places like Kensington and such were exempt. This was supposed to be done to help the war effort when, in truth, it was no more than a political stunt to let the population at large know that there was a war on and we must all sacrifice. Of course our parents knew there was a bloody war on! Another charade was the collecting of aluminium pots and pans to make Spitfires. None of that material was used to help the war effort. I think Lord Beaverbrook was responsible for that particular fiasco. Is it inevitable that those given power gradually lose touch with reality?
Any historian will answer, with a loud unquestioning “Yes!” It is something of a wonder that, in this modern age of political gimmicks, that no graduate in political science has produced a formula to define this very predictable failure; perhaps along the following lines: P x T= X where P represents position, T, time in office and X is the distance from reality.
Posted 15th November 2007 A State of Flux.