For my father’s eightieth birthday, my wife and I took him to France for a few days. This was perhaps his last chance to pay his respects to those comrades of his who had fallen on D-Day, 6th June 1944.
Back in the day everything seemed to be made of quality, my own father, a practising solicitor, always carried around with him a solid silver cigarette case from which he would carefully select a Piccadilly No1, tap it three times on the beautifully engraved lid before putting to use his trusty Dunhill lighter, a twenty first birthday present from his own parents. The Harris Tweed jacket he wore exuded a certain genteel class that seems to have all but disappeared today, the feint aroma of something rich and fecund hanging off the thick intricately woven fabric like a testimonial of what a man could aspire to if he tried hard enough.
Father was a man of strict routine, his ability to plough through paperwork and disseminate the superfluous from the important, a skill which had earned him the reputation of being a formidable exponent of court advocacy. He always seemed able, with his trusty Conway Parker fountain pen, to annotate legal jargon into a concise language understandable to his many appreciative clients. This dry sense of duty often exhibiting itself into what I saw, I am now ashamed to admit, as something approaching cold heartedness.
The car my father drove was a Rover; deep leather upholstery and a walnut dashboard that somehow seemed almost Edwardian in style and design. To regularly clean and valet this 3-litre beast of unadulterated luxury was an exercise in washing, wiping and polishing which occupied me for the best part of two hours and earned me the princely sum of fifty pence. Never was the concept of child labour put to more instructive use.
On the windswept expanse of beach in France, where a young legal clerk had once crouched against the wet sand as German bullets ricocheted around him, he now pointed with his walking stick at landmarks he thought he recognised: a crumbling pill-box, a grass tufted dune where “Taffy” Jones had fallen, a distant church which in the failing light of battle provided sanctuary and a brief respite from fighting for his own unit.
Later that day we visited the British cemetery, dedicated to those brave soldiers who had fallen in battle. My father, resplendent in a dark blue blazer and regimental tie, walked with a solemnity I hadn’t even seen him express even at my own Mother’s funeral. Perhaps the onset of old age and the diminution of responsibility to others had now pushed natural emotion beyond the remit of having to wear a brave face. But how am I, one of the privileged generation, qualified to make assessment of a war hero’s innermost feelings?
I extracted a tissue or two from my pocket and passed them towards him, but he already had one of those monogrammed handkerchiefs pressed to his face.
“Bloody wind,” he muttered and turned away from me. “Let’s be getting back to the car,” he added, and with careful steps began walking away from the endless rows of white headstones.