Saturday 24 January 2015

An imperfect man perhaps, but a perfect hero

Fifty years ago this weekend Winston Churchill died.

I had only been in London for a very few weeks – the first time outside South Africa. If you can imagine, coming from mid summer in Johannesburg, sunny hot days – to a London which was grey and cold. This was before they cleaned up most of the buildings and everything was so dark and so grey and the days so short.

Churchill was old and frail and yet we felt stunned. He was lying in state in Westminster Hall and we went after work. I think we queued for about three or four hours.  It was slightly surreal – cold, damp and the WRVS had trucks serving tea to the people waiting.  I felt as if I had been time-warped back to a war I had never experienced.

I have never felt the need to share in public grief or joy except for this. It was extraordinary and I will never forget it.

My parents were also pleased that we went. In WWII there was no conscription in South Africa – and it was touch and go whether the government of the day would support the Allies or the Axis powers. It was an anxious time, they knew something of what was happening to the Jews in Europe. My father felt morally compelled to act to support Britain's actions in the war – not all did. He volunteered and served as a surgeon on a British hospital ship – the AMRA. 

He felt, and I still do, that if it weren’t for Churchill we would not be here today. Certainly there would be no Jews in Europe – at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, Reinhard Heydrich said that "Europe would be combed of Jews from east to west”.

I am sure that this is simplistic but I do feel that Churchill was the only man in the right place at the right time and I will always be grateful. 

Friday 23 January 2015

Those were the days – well some of them

A friend posted a link on facebook which contrasts the more laissez faire attitude of parents in the 60s and 70s to now.  In some cases I think the changes are a shame – playgrounds that are so safe that they hinder children’s development and in others, no seat belts, smoking everywhere and products to make you suntan faster – thank goodness. 

This set me to reminisce a bit:  growing up in Johannesburg we were desperate to get a tan and sat in the sun as much as possible.  As if that weren’t bad enough, far from using sunscreen we used a variety of things to make us tan – ie burn – quicker.  Two of the ones I remember were salad oil (you stank like a chip-shop) and Brylcreem (smelt equally revolting).  My saving grace was living in the UK most of my life and not getting much more sun – at least I haven’t developed skin cancer as some of those friends who stayed in sunny climates have.

From the age of about 13 or 14 we went out on our bikes for hours on end.  We lived on the edge of suburbia so not much traffic and there were always at least two or three of us.  Our parents couldn’t contact us (no cell phones dear grandchildren) and as long as we were back before dark no one bothered. Not that they were uncaring – that’s just the way it was.  When I started dating and went out with boys in cars – they waited up for me!!

We would drive the 1,000 miles to Cape Town for the summer holidays, mostly driving straight through – about 23 hours.  Our parents would build up the gap between the back of the front seat and the back seat with various bits of luggage and use towels and rugs to make a “bed” for my sister and me. 

The tradition also included stopping for picnic breakfast with omelette sandwiches (in freshly baked challah).  In later years we stopped half way at De Aar and stayed the night in an hotel.  (De Aar is the equivalent of Atlanta for flights – wherever you go you have to change in Atlanta – well De Aar, despite being a small town was (and possibly still is) the same.)

The other vivid memory is the canvas water bag, two of which would hang outside the car.  Dear grandchildren – bottled mineral water didn’t exist and thermos flasks held hot drinks. You filled the canvas water bag with water and the very slow evaporation kept the water cold.  If we were very lucky a garage would sell soft drinks – you could choose between Pepsi, Coke, and fizzy red or fizzy green – goodness knows what the flavours were.

The holiday was an adventure - one year the roof rack flew off the back of the car and we all had to get out, unpack the luggage, put it back on again and repack the luggage – my parents then held it on, each with one arm out of the window (father no doubt driving one handed) until we came to a garage – probably a hundred miles or so.