In continuing my journey through life I am discovering how difficult, and at times downright impossible, it is to avoid being sidetracked. In life it appears we are just characters in the play that is yet to be written, for the most part, no more than bit players performing our small part and only contributing to scenes as they unfold. I am discovering that the path down memory lane is not always smooth and easy and one of the dangers of delving into and awakening it is that one is forced to face up to the unpleasant, as well as the happy events, that one remembers.
It also follows that many instances come to mind that, annoyingly, cannot now be explained away, but were taken for granted at the time. You know what I mean, incidents lost in time, incidents destined never to be distinct, incidents that must now remain undefined. It is of course a fact that the passage of time often prevents us backtracking for answers because, as life marches on, death keeps pace and explanations cannot be forthcoming.
I am referring to those unexplained events, irritatingly lurking at the fringes of one’s mind; lying in wait on the distant horizon of our thoughts, knowing they must remain as unanswered mysteries. They will not be extinguished; and yet they intrude on our senses and demand attention at inappropriate moments.
For instance, just at the point when blessed sleep is about to slip into one's soul, and play her part in the 24-hour life pattern, all thoughts of gentle slumber are crushed as one's mind goes off on one or other of those flights of fancy. I am led to believe this disturbing factor increases with age. I will give you a small personal example of what I'm getting at.
Last night, for no particular reason, I found my imagination being plagued, in the small hours, by two such indescribable events that crawled out from way back. However to understand what I'm talking about, you must first of all recognise that I was a member of a large family and privacy was hard to come by, and therefore respected and valued. Added to which being the youngest and tail end, and somewhat curious by nature, it was instilled in me that my elders' affairs were of no concern of mine. So they said, but so what? At that time my subconscious was always on overdrive. I vividly remember a period during the war while I was busy and preoccupied with my own life, I was nevertheless was surrounded by many mysterious and unexplained events that my young powers of investigation failed to penetrate. Countless mysteries remained unsolved, and secrets remained unbroken. Why then, you may ask, after all these years and for seemingly no explicable reason, did two such events decide to visit me in the night? A logical question in itself you may say, but one that defies an answer.
Let me explain. To suggest that the first event slipped into my subconscious gently may give a wrong impression-it thundered in! It pushed its way, uninvited, into my psyche. The scene was set way back in late 1945. One of my brothers-in-law, like so many thousands of servicemen in our Army of the Rhine, struggling to get embarkation transport back to Britain, turned up unexpectedly, late one evening, at our house in Glasgow, carrying his kit bag along with a 6 foot high double bass fiddle. It was only later that I heard it had once been the property of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra.
I was too young then to know anything other than to just take it for granted but, for many years afterwards, I wish I had asked about the story behind the double bass fiddle. Good heavens, in the confusion of Berlin at that time how had he acquired this instrument? How could he have got it out of the befuddled and war-torn city of Berlin? Then, to travel with it by train across Europe, ship across the Channel, train to Glasgow’s Central Station and eventually by tramcar to our house? Come to think of it, he, after some four years of absence fighting in North Africa and Europe, turns up unexpectedly one midnight, three floors up at the front door of our flat! So many questions, so many explanations required, but no answers – it just had to be taken for granted.
We have all heard of war loot; an Iron Cross, a Luger Pistol and the like, but a double bass fiddle, well, I ask you! And now, that is a story that will now never be told, a story in search of a voice that will never be heard.
I remember the double bass quite naturally becoming something of an addition to the family. She quickly acquired the name Phoebe and remained in the family till her departure a few years ago when she was gifted to the local high school. He, my brother-in-law, was an architect by profession but also a very talented musician and for a very many years he and Phoebe played in a dance band two or three evenings a week.
No sooner had that incident destroyed any hope of sleep than the second event, like a cuckoo, invaded my mind. Here again, another brother-in-law, then a Royal Air Force bomber pilot, was shot down on a raid over Germany in 1943. He avoided capture and got back to Britain to continue the war.
This was a further adventure story I wanted to hear, but as a youngster the door, figuratively speaking, was closed. I was considered too young to pry into "private and personal affairs and events." My enquiries were not welcome and no inquest allowed.
In the first incident, the case of the bass fiddle, rules, regulations and most likely, laws had been broken or sidestepped at least, and a curtain was drawn over what must have been a marvellous and, at times, hilarious story.
As to the second episode, here again I was not allowed to ask how he escaped back to Britain. Who helped him? Was the French underground involved? What happened to the rest of his crew? All I got then was, “Hush. Remember, the answers may endanger others if the Germans got to hear of the circumstances.” I was on the wrong side of the screen and the sound of silence was deafening.
I suppose it was in keeping with the times. Can you remember the wartime slogans, “Careless talk costs lives” and, “Walls have ears”? Are you old enough to remember that the country was just recovering from a real fear of invasion? Sign posts had been removed from many towns and railway stations, our beaches were still fortified against attack, and there was a genuine fear of a fifth column in our midst - something of a surreal atmosphere all round.
I could, of course, have gone back to these people in later years, when the age differential was no longer relevant, but interest waned with time and circumstances until it became too late for informed discussion.
So why now do these and many other mysteries creep up in the middle of the night to keep me awake? I do not know but I can tell you it plays hell with my sleep pattern. My mind races off in search of a story yearning to be told that now will never be written.
I know I am not alone in this. We all have stories that can never be told, circumstances that can never be explained and mysteries that can never be solved. I find as life goes on, these little, and sometimes not so little, unexplained incidents and mysteries are creeping in to extend the lengthening gap at night between wake and sleep.
Good heavens! I say again, think of it; tales that can not be told, stories in search of their author, mysteries that now for all-time will never be solved, all those words that will forever remain silent, in search of a page that will never be written. All lost in the corridor of time. That clearly being the case, why the devil do they come lurking out after all these years as questions that must remain unanswered.
Admittedly, I must confess they pale into insignificance when my mind wanders off in search of the big answer to the question, “What is the meaning and purpose of life, and how should it be conducted?”
That takes the biscuit and is guaranteed to clear your mind of all other thoughts when it visits you in the middle of the night.
In my ignorance and solitude I look to the philosophers and theologians for help but that is one personal mystery that, for me, still remains unanswered. Could it be that we must look to a truly literal translation of the normally expletive phrase, GOD ALONE KNOWS?
If you think it all sounds rather dramatic. But, does not melodrama play a large part with one’s mind in the long silent hours of the night? I am convinced that I am not alone in this. With advancing years we begin to realise how preoccupied and self-centred we have become and how superficial our knowledge is of those around us. You will know what I'm getting at. You become awake, shaken out of your complacency and you realise you have no knowledge of the innermost thoughts of your nearest and dearest.
These thoughts crowd in just ahead of you crossing the threshold towards much desired sleep. You resolve to do better before it is too late, determined that the next morning you will not take so much for granted, utter the words that have remained unspoken and attend to the deeds that remain undone.
So what was the result? What metamorphosis took place in the night? In my case did I become a wiser and better person in the cold light of day? I do not think so, but then in my state of total blindness I do not wake to the light of day, cold or otherwise.
For heaven's sake, where is this stretch of my imagination taking me? It is not the purpose of this book to predict the future, but rather to record the past, as reflected by my memory. So let me continue my journey through life to the present-day, because in fact the next morning, like it or not, I will wake up and life will carry on as before, or maybe not exactly as before. Time will tell.
In the meantime let me continue with my task. There is much living to reflect on in the long journey to arrive at the present. So where was I?
Oh yes, I see a group of young people, mostly working, studying and playing hard, and somewhat oblivious to the spiritual, social and economic surroundings of the time. What happened to my early teenage group of friends? Well, it was not of course apparent then, but it was natural and inevitable that we would drift apart in pursuit of our individual aims and ambitions and in quest of our different careers.
These facts were painfully seen some 10 years on at a little ad hoc reunion we arranged. As it turned out this was not a very good idea. In fact, putting it mildly, a bloody awful idea. It was a stilted, embarrassing occasion from beginning to end, notwithstanding the genuine effort on the part of one or two of us to play down any obvious signs of outward success. It could be said, on the night, we failed miserably. I was looking forward to a warm convivial evening with old friends. After all there was much history behind us. We all been in the Boys Brigade together, played in the same football team and holidayed together. There was much to reminisce about, incidents to laugh over, but not a bit of it! Oh no, not that night. How could I have been so naïve?
It quickly became very clear the gap had widened and could not be bridged. The intellectual and material progress could not be hidden, no more the different attitude and expectations of those erstwhile not-so “magnificent seven” old school pals. This was clearly and painfully illustrated from the word go, and how could it have been otherwise? One pursued a career in marine engineering and went on to be chief engineer, and thereafter a Director of a major oil tanker shipping line. Another became a medical doctor, entered politics, ending his career as a Minister of State and a Privy Councillor. As for me, I was well on the way toward my £600 million property empire, (yet unaware then of the forthcoming 1970s & 80s recessions). Another achieved a solid engineering degree and went off to Australia. We lost touch, with the other three. One could not come, (apparently because his wife would not allow him out), and the other two were police constables, (motorbike cops), with the Glasgow Police Force who stated straightaway, with barely concealed resentment and hollow laughter, that they would try to book the rest of us on any traffic offence they could muster up.
It certainly was not a successful evening and it sticks in my memory as such. It was way back but I can still recall the feeling of antipathy and the animosity showing in our old schoolmates eyes. I felt it was such that, given the opportunity, they were quite capable of misusing the authority of their uniforms, if they could, in some small way redress, as they saw it, the balance of power, if not privilege. The hoped-for happy evening turned out to be one of slightly disguised aggression with a somewhat them and us, ending. Let that be a warning to you, be very, very careful with reunions.
I remember a doctor friend of mine telling me how much he was looking forward to attending his Medical School Reunion and catching up with his old friend. I met him after the event and he was distressed to tell me that, without exception, his student pals were either dead, divorced, had gone off with their partner's husband or wife or were ‘struck off’. He vowed, “ Never again.”
Be that as it may, permit me to return to the task in hand, which opens up with me beginning my next phase of evolution and enlightenment.
Posted 9th January 2009 Questions That Remain Unanswered