The next few years were busy years for me. But looking back, there was much change and again, much remained the same.
Roosevelt did not survive the war and was replaced by Truman who shortened the war with Japan by totally destroying two of its major cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by ordering the dropping of one single atom bomb on each; the most horrendous weapons of war that man could then imagine. The reason for his action has been the cause of much argument ever since, but clearly it was not a decision taken lightly. The United States’ slow awakening to the Soviet Republic's growing world aspirations greatly influenced his action to achieve a quick ending to the war in the Pacific, as history would show.
Winston Churchill, our great, war leader, and his coalition government were replaced by Clement Attlee and his Labour government. It was not ingratitude by the people, more a knee-jerk reaction to the many years of war. Churchill did return a few years later to lead the Tories back into power.
The inhumane horrors of Hitler's final solution and the Holocaust were put before the public and the Nuremberg trials took place resulting in the execution of some, but not all of the Nazi war criminals. With indecent haste, the United States and the Soviet Republic scrambled to capture and then "repatriate" the leading Nazi scientists as the two nations competed with each other in the race for rocket and atomic dominance.
We won the war; we were now at peace. What peace?
Much remained the same, the country was broke, rationing was still as stringent, in fact to most of us the only thing noticeable was the lifting of blackout restrictions, but even then it was a long time before shops were allowed to light up their windows. It was a very bleak time and many years before we, in Britain, showed any tangible evidence that we were one of the victors.
We, of course, were totally unaware of the great efforts being made by the West to stabilize the governments of war-torn continental Europe. The fear of disruptive communism was very real.
As hot-headed students we were not prepared to give credit to America for contributing generously with its Marshall Aid Program. We could not see beyond the fact that Britain almost bankrupted itself fighting the war and America was pressing to start negotiating repayment terms of her war loans. It seemed she was not acting like a friendly ally. In truth it took 60 years to clear these war debts. So much the price of war! I remember the strong feelings of resentment, in certain quarters, that America, having come in late, was already calling for repayment of our debts incurred through the lend-lease arrangements. After all, we claimed, albeit unrealistically and naively, that, as with the first war, they had come out of this one much stronger economically than when they went in and as such should now relax in enforcing the terms of the agreement. An agreement, by the way, that Winston Churchill and the country were grateful for at the time of United States neutrality. Would that international politics were so simple!
I recall the subject of one of my first year economic papers. I was to address the cost to Britain of the war in economic terms, coupled with the United States and then quite legally, if somewhat forcefully, the bargaining for settlement of their war loans.
The country was in the depth of negotiations with them, it was taking a long time to reach any form of settlement and our representative, the famous economist John Maynard Keanes, was having a very tough time with the United States Congress.
I can still recollect my strong and yet simplistic feelings against their attitude. We had carried the war, almost alone, in opposition to Nazi Germany for a long period in an effort to save the nations and cultures from which many had left behind in order to become Americans and their erstwhile kinsfolk from extermination or slavery, and in the process we were bled dry.
I remember stating, idealistically, that if America wanted its pound of flesh it would have to be veal; all our blood having been drained away.
Of course, more mature and wiser counsel would come to me later. The United States Congress was quite rightly first and foremost taking care of its country's national interests and there was no question but that the terms and conditions of loans in all respects would be honoured.
Europe was in a mess, Great Britain’s was on its knees, America was the unquestioned world power and they could not live happily in these circumstances with the concept of Britain retaining its Empire and Commonwealth connections. First and foremost, they were determined not to pass up the opportunity of ensuring that the American Dollar would establish pre-eminence over Sterling.
However, there is no doubt that the United States contributed greatly to the restructuring of continental Europe; considered as a necessary action against the spread of communism. On the other hand Britain was expected to survive the post-war period relatively stable.
My years of student hood were hectic and exciting - studying, working and playing hard.
We debated on all subjects and expressed views on world and political affairs in the dogmatic and confident fashion; as students do before being weighed down by wisdom or experience. I am somewhat ashamed to see now that we were no more than coffee-bar intellectuals; only passive protesters paying lip service to our so-called high principles but not so prepared to interrupt our present activities to actually interfere with our comfortable lifestyle.
It was convenient for us to think that the war had denied us the luxury of being anything other than reflective objectors. But that was not so. We saw the beginning of CND and ban-the-bomb marches and disarmament groups. Young and old were prepared to be pro-active. It suited us to see their self-righteous, but genuine, passion for peace as an irritating embarrassment, not much more.
In our innocence, demanding our civil rights, we were quite oblivious to the scandalous activities of the Militant Left trying to infiltrate these peaceful movements with their devious tactics, their orchestrated and calculated chaos and rent-mob devices. These disruptive forces had already gained incisive influence in many of our trade unions and other establishment bodies and played a disruptive roll in our society for many years to come. We had no choice other than to be very aware of the growth of terrorist groups.
Good god! The names come flooding back, Baader-Meinhof in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, Mau Mau in Kenya, EOKA in Cyprus, the Sterne gang in Israel, the PLO in Palestine and the British army kept busy in faraway places like Aden, Burma and Malaysia. The IRA was not altogether idle at that time either!
The Second World War was over but where was the peace? The Indian and African continents were in turmoil, France in trouble in Algiers, Indo China and Vietnam and so it went on. Looking back it can be seen that many of the terrorists from that point in time, displaying horrendous disregard to life, with a cynical approach to hijacking, kidnapping, indiscriminate bombing and murdering of innocent civilians are now portrayed as freedom fighters and heroes. We do indeed live in a strange and savage world.
At the risk of misquoting Voltaire, "If terrorism doth succeed, who dare call it terrorism?"
We were conscious of it all but were preoccupied in trying to carve our future through the chaos. It took a full decade for the students of that generation to feel they had the freedom to be pro-active in their protests, their riots in Paris, London and elsewhere, and later came the days of the flower people – “make love not war.” They believed in free love, they had the pill and drugs and much to protest about. The world was in a constant state of war with little outbreaks of peace. After various small wars and the Korean War they had a disastrous Vietnam - a cause for real remonstration.
Yes, there was much to protest about, much to raise us from our indolence. We had Anthony Eden's despicable behaviour over Suez and the USSR's behaviour in Eastern Europe, the uprising in Hungary and colonial wars throughout the disintegrating British Empire. We had our causes and could have taken part in the protest marches but, to our shame, we appeared to be happy to be no more than armchair protesters, offering vocal condemnation, and content to take part in the growing satirical movements of our time. Student life was very fulfilling, leaving no time for altruistic actions. The truth is we were too busy getting on with our lives, and we left it to the others to be angry young men.
Quite unmindful of it all, and before the transition period of ‘growing up’ was completed, I and my student pals took ourselves off for a 14 day summer break to Douglas, Isle of Man, to enjoy the fleshpots of youth.
The following year we felt confident enough to cross to what we thought would be the war-torn continent; in this instance Ostend in Belgium. We were in for a surprise! In the city there was a feeling of opulence, and in comparison to what we left behind, prosperity was all around. If it was only a show to attract tourists from austerity Britain it certainly worked on us.
This would have been in the early 50s and our country was moving through one of is many credit restrictions with controls placing a strict limit on the amount of currency one could take out of the country. At that time I had a brother-in-law who was a dentist. To augment my holiday expenses he gave me four little gold bars saying that he had had the dental gold for many years but it was now no longer fashionable to have gold fillings or caps on one's teeth. So with those four tiny little bars of gold, along with my very limited funds, tucked in my wallet, I confidently took the steamer from Dover across the Channel.
We were positively amazed and fascinated by the goods on display in Ostend, particularly the many jewellery shops packed with fancy watches and the like. By the second day I had made up my mind. I would do a deal - my gold bullion in exchange for one of those very expensive-looking watches. Early the next morning I set to on my task, and picking the biggest and flashiest jewellery shop, I asked to see the boss. When we met I pointed out to him the watch I wanted stating that I would trade in my gold in exchange. He was clearly taken aback and I was hustled into his back office. He examined and weighed my little bars talking all the while in heavily accented English. He got quite excited, saying that we could certainly do business together and made me promise to come back at six o'clock that evening but this time, to the back door of is premises.
This I duly did and was led into a dimly lit room with six or seven dark suited and hatted elderly, bearded gentleman, sitting round a long table. I was taken aback and I admit, for my sins, my first thoughts were how the devil these people could have managed to avoid the horrors of Hitler's final solution program.
My gold was passed from hand to hand and a whispered discussion took place in what I took to be Hebrew Flemish. I was asked to step out again for a few moments to allow them to have private discussion. I was becoming uneasy; after all, all I wanted was a watch from the window! About five minutes passed and I was ushered in again and a very old gentleman said, in broken English, “The Guild would be interested but, in negotiating a price, I would have to understand that my gold was 24 carat and, in that form, too soft for jewellery purposes. The price therefore would have to reflect the trouble and inconvenience of adding several minerals to arrive at the right consistency. I know now of course he was referring to the process of adding about 10% silver, 7% zinc and about 40% percent copper to get my gold into a usable 18-carat strength. The old man did not mention that, after that process, the result would be three times the quantity of usable gold. I was getting out of my depth, uneasy and a little scared - all I wanted was a watch from the window!
My worry increased tremendously when he continued in his croaky voice to say that the price would also depend on the regularity and size of the shipment!
For the first time it dawned on me, all I wanted was a watch and they saw me as a potential gold smuggler; some sort of Harry Lime, a Third Man. All sophistication gone, I was now in a cold sweat. I panicked and tumbled out my complete story desperately, in a manner hopefully to convince them that I had done nothing to mislead them and all I wanted was a watch from the window.
The room was in confusion. I could see real fear in their eyes and, at that moment, a thought flashed through my mind that these people had seen unimaginable horror and tragedy and maybe they would place little value on life - leastways an individual life as they priced survival above all. I was completely out of my depth and I knew it. With hindsight I realise that what saved me was their natural instinct to stay alive. All dignity was gone, replaced by fear, instantly wanting get away quickly to avoid detection at all costs, and eager to scuttle away to the security of their own bolt holes, but not before letting it be known that they were very angry with my jewellery friend.
Once they were convinced it was not a setup or a trap I was, thank heavens, totally disregarded and they disappeared very quickly muttering curses, I think.
These old guys had escaped the Nazis and the Holocaust. They knew their way around, all the angles, and as for me, I was very relieved to make a quick getaway with my gold and my life. As months passed the horror of the death camps and gas chambers became openly acknowledged and with it came my growing understanding of that evening and my guilt in unwittingly taking part in the public exposure of their private shame. 60 years on my heart goes out to these old men, and the incredible horror of what they were witness to still remains clear. I pray that it always will.
However, to the end of this story. Within a few days I eventually managed to exchange my gold for the fancy watch and imagine my chagrin in returning through customs nervously declaring my proud purchase to the customs officer for inspection. His comment was, "Dear oh dear! No duty to pay on this. In fact his Majesty's s government should give you some money back, son.” He was more or less right. Within a few months the watch turned out to be rubbish.
These were the years of momentous events. They have found their place in the history books but it is the small personal incidents that often take precedence in one's memory. One of many examples I recall - in the week of 1956, when Britain, France and Israel concocted and executed their diabolical campaign to invade Egypt with the fictitious and farcical claim of saving the Suez canal for the world, our country was in a state of strife and confusion, and of course petrol for private motoring was unobtainable and even pink commercial petrol very strictly rationed. What has pride of place in my memory of the time? Well I will tell you. That was the week I agreed to buy a second-hand, V12 two-seater Allard sports coupe that could probably achieve at best 10 miles to the gallon, (in a fair wind). My father got me out of that particular deal- why? No fuel, no insurance cover, no driving licence. In fact three years were to pass and three driving tests later before I managed to obtain a driving licence and insurance cover!
Forgive me, but I would rather not bring to mind any more incidents in which my youthful entrepreneurial flair was found wanting.
Posted 16th November 2008 Peace - What Peace?