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Live and learn

Surely there must be a middle ground between children wearing a shirt and tie by age three, earnestly practising a classical instrument and asking me politely “Grandpapa, may I please borrow your geometry set for my homework?” and the pandemonium of 17 children in a Pizza Express?

My oldest friend in the world [she may read this blog, in which case she may be about to become my oldest ex-friend] was born of two Hungarian intellectual parents who resettled in the UK after the war. They met, I think, in a concentration camp en route to the worst possible end.

They were serious, imposing, effective, strict – and washed up in my non-descript norf London suburb.

Ten years ago, my friend attended a world conference of the children of survivors of the Holocaust. She was very hesitant about the trip. Within an hour she had met so many people who shared her childhood ubiquity: ‘whatever she suffered, it could not be as bad as Auschwitz’.

I still find this fascinating and very moving and grimly funny.: “You’ve broken your leg. That’s nothing. Your father and I …”.

What we have to remember is that, after the war, the ruin, the death of so many friends, siblings and neighbours – all that young adult survivor generation wanted was peace and security.

Now I think about my childhood environment as cloying, dull and – yes – too safe.

Back then, it never occurred to me what my parents had endured on the ambulance trains on the front line in India and Burma.

Children are interested in their parents, but not curious. None of us who have lost parents or grandparents asked them nearly enough questions about their lives. They were there to serve our ends: to provide a lift here, a toy there, a kind word or a kiss. We never quizzed them about the 31-hour shift trying to give comfort or pain relief to a white faced, terrified young boy with half his torso blown away.

My mum and dad were married in Burma. Their best man was blown to bits four hours after the wedding by a land mine. My uncle Rob [my namesake] was shell shocked. I remember him with fear and confusion. A man I could not reach. A man whose sister Dot had given up her teaching career in Canada to return to Devon to care for her brother.

For 30 years.

I never asked her about it.

Dot lived in our house with us. In them thar days, there were many generations in the same house. She was tiny, polite, loving, with a light froth of white hair, gappy yellow teeth and endless patience. She had a few shares in ICI and a Roberts radio and a small Letts diary. That was all, I think. She would make her excuses after supper and go to her room, to give my parents some private time.

When she was very frail, I used to carry her to the bathroom. The way she dealt with the indignity has sculpted the way I deal with the same indignity of a blind man, seated next to a cabinet minister, when my IBS requires that I tap her on the shoulder and say “Minister, you are going to have to take me to the bathroom and I’ve got about 20 seconds. Then you are going to have to wait, try not to listen, then guide me back.” Auntie Dot taught me, without saying a word, that dignity is vanity when applied to yourself.

So I will go to the pizza restaurant. I cannot lip read. All I will experience  is the cacophony of high midrange. I will be blind and deaf. A passenger.

I won’t endure it. I will enjoy it. I won’t be emasculated, or compromised. I will be uncomfortable a little. The others will be aware that I am in a bit of a spot. But I will love being there.

I wonder sometimes if we assume too much about others by not listening enough. If I’d listened to my mum and dad, if I’d quizzed Dot about her life, if I’d sat patiently with Rob, it would not have taken me so long to learn that you can get so much out of so little.