Wednesday 26 February 2014

My version of events... The Belch

I've mentioned that Dad used to tell us stories of his time in Palestine.  Some of them seem to have become important to him only after the event as he has not recorded any details of them.  This is my interpretation of one of those stories.  I would place it fairly early in Dad's time in Palestine; maybe in Jenin. 

Ron –
Dad –
In the Palestine Police,
1947 and 1948 –
Two years
National Service.
Here he is at 19, holding his rifle,
Smiling at the adventure of it.
A bold, brave boy
Leaning in the midday sun.

He has guard duty –
The prison, in the police station.

He must guard a notorious Arab agitator –
Deemed deadly dangerous –
Seems he has a bloody past
And bloodier intentions –
So they’ve locked him up.

Ron must patrol past his cell
Every hour –
Why! to check he’s still in there, of course.
Yes, sergeant.

So Ron checks –
Every hour –
On the hour –
And every time –
He checks –
He’s still there –
Huddled, meditating,
In his dark corner...

Pietro Sarubbi
Barabbas in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
He’s a burly man,
A Barabbas,
With bad teeth I imagine,
A hefty beard and black dissecting eyes –
Locked up in his passionate thirties
For fighting the injustice he feels.

Ron is here,
A lad,
Poking his shiny face up against the barred door
Always checking…

11 o’clock
Ron’s tired.
It’s dark and cold
He puts his face up to the bars.
This time,
This time in the gloomy cell
He can see…
He can make out…
Where is he?
He leans his rifle against the wall
And cups his eyes with his hands
Trying to gather as much light through the bars
Digging his way through to the dark corners
Searching for the shape of the man
Some variation in the degree of darkness
To hint that he is still there.


No, no don’t panic.

He must be in here somewhere

He can’t just disappear
Ron would have heard if there had been a break out.
A tunnel?
Don’t be daft.

The heart is beating
The sweat breaks out across the forehead
When do I tell?
When do I admit I’ve lost him?

Oh God!
God, godgodgodgodgod!

The chill metal of the bars
Burns his cheeks,
Presses up against his face.

And then,
A face right up against his own
Looking deep into his eyes
Penetrating his pupils
The hot breath on his skin
The beard brushing his nose

And in that second
A belch,
Black and fragrant,
Olives and garlic,
A palpable puff of gastric gases
Invades Ron’s nostrils.

Ron recoils
And Barabbas
Smirks –

Pardon me, British – he lies

As he shuffles

Back into the dark corner.

And Ron swallows hard.

Saturday 22 February 2014

22nd April, 1948 - Home at last...

Thursday, 22nd April, 1948
We were up early this morning to be ready by 8a.m. when we were to move from the ship.  In fact we were half an hour late leaving the ship for the ferry which took us all to the Customs Wharf.  Here after a long search I found my second case which had been put anywhere but on the row for baggage belonging to people whose surname began with “B”.  As soon as I found the case I grabbed one of the many customs officials and asked him to check my luggage.  He asked me if I had anything to declare.  I declared 300 cigs and some sweets, this satisfied him and I was able to go through without opening anything.  I got a taxi to the station where I found I had a little time to spare.  I found two other B/Cs who were travelling on the same train as I so we put our baggage together and got a porter to put it in a compartment for us while we went to get a little refreshment.  The train left Lime Street Station at 10.40 and we were soon speeding along through the green fields and small towns of brick houses we had all missed so much.  We changed trains at Crewe and again all got into the same compartment with two Welsh men.  We timed ourselves through the Severn Tunnel, the first time I had been through it. (7 mins)  Arriving at Newton just before 9p.m.  I took a taxi home where I took the folks partly by surprise as they did not expect me until later.

This is the final entry Ron made in his diary.  He was discharged from the Service receiving his Certificate of Discharge in October 1949 having...

"Carried out his duties in a very satisfactory manner."

Thank you for taking the time to share Ron's story with me.   

For me it has been both a pleasure and a sadness to "hear" my father's voice again - albeit as written words. 
I see how my handwriting has over the years come to resemble his.
I recognise his turn of phrase, his curiosity and his occasional pomposity.   As a youth I was both engaged and embarrassed by his desire to get involved with the world around him.  My father presented me with opportunities in which I sometimes blossomed and which, at other times, I was too "shy" to take.

A favourite expression of his in later life, if we were faced with a slightly challenging social situation was "Throw a bridge!"  - open the conversation; make the effort to connect with the stranger; be interested in people and maybe they will respond positively to you; be open to new experiences and face what life places before you.

I recognise this as the spirit that had driven Ron to serve in Palestine - the Holy Land, a land of intrigue and exoticism, a mixture of the Biblical and the political, fascinating to a young, open and impressionable mind.

Throughout his life, Dad's enthusiasm for his experiences in Palestine never left him.  For us children the stories he told of those times were fascinating - some humorous, some curious, some horrific - but the continuing political situation flummoxed him - he remained uncertain how the situation could ever be resolved.

I had no great overarching purpose when I decided to present Dad's diaries to a wider audience.  They are simply the impressions of a young, uncomplicated man responding to a complicated situation.  But they are a human account by a person I love and for me that is enough.  As a contribution to the historical picture of the period they represent a tiny, largely insignificant part.  Dad was just a 19 year-old doing a job - he wasn't there to question the decisions made in distant government offices. 

But if Dad's recorded experiences show anything at all it is that the situation was then and continues to be hugely complex.  Maybe part of the difficulty of resolving the political situation is that opposing factions may see things in rather more black and white terms.  If more emphasis can be placed on the human within the political; and if an attitude of compassion be adopted, then perhaps more progress could be made.

I am supremely conscious of my ignorance of the complexities of the Palestine/Israel conflict - although I do have a slightly clearer understanding now than I had at the beginning of this undertaking.  In my reading and research I have come to appreciate the bungling and ineffectual part the British government played.  The British seemed to regard Palestine as something of a poison chalice.  I recognise the passion felt by the Jewish people in seeking a homeland especially after the atrocities of the Second World War.  I also understand the outrage of the Palestinians whose homeland has been "occupied".  I have been shocked and dismayed by the continuing behaviour of the Israeli government in their treatment of the original inhabitants of the land.  The illegal settling of large areas of Palestinian land, the literal eradication of villages, of peoples homes, the denial of human rights - these are tactics that cannot be acceptable in a modern democracy regardless of the political situation or historical context.

If you have any questions or comments I would love to hear from you.


Friday 21 February 2014

20th & 21st April, 1948 - The final leg complete but a frustrating wait before disembarking...

Tuesday, 20th April, 1948
We are still moving North but no land has been sighted since the Bishop’s Rock Light House which we sighted with a fog belt inland behind it.  This afternoon we began to prepare for landing.  Library books were handed in and cases etc put ready for being taken off by crane if they are too heavy to carry.
The majority of us are going off in uniform as we do not want to get our civvies dirty in the expected scrabble and rush through the customs.
We were given a railway voucher today made out to our homes.

Wednesday, 21st April, 1948
When I woke this morning I found we were moving very slowly in a fog.  On enquiring I found out that we 
were approaching the coast of England and the mouth of the Mersey.  After breakfast we all crowded on deck hoping to sight England but all we saw were a few buoys which told us we were near the mouth.  We stopped once and it was given out that we could not dock tonight as there was no room for us on a wharf.  Later, so I learned, the ship was ordered to anchor in the harbour where we would be taken off by ferry.  This was done but as it was late only the compassionate leave and ordinary leave troops were allowed off.  Police and other troops were told that they would be taken off the ship tomorrow morning.

The tug men who were to operate the tugs to pull the ship to the wharf were on strike this was why we had to be taken off by ferry.

This evening officials came on board.  Posts & Telegrams accepted telegrams for despatch to our homes.  Railway people exchanged travel warrants for a ticket and times of our trains.  The Crown Agents gave us an advance of £10 and the address to which we should send our uniform.

Thursday 20 February 2014

18th & 19th April, 1948 - Closer and closer... The Bay of Biscay and Finisterre while the nights are getting colder.

Sunday, 18th April, 1948
Now out in the Atlantic the sea though not rough is making the ship pitch and roll.  This has caused many people, especially those who embarked at Gib., to develop mal de mer.  Fortunately so far I have escaped this fate but my tummy warns me not to be too optimistic about crossing Biscay tomorrow.
The voyage is beginning to bore me now, everything which was new in the first few days has fallen into place to make a routine.  The mornings I find pass much more quickly than do the afternoons.

Reading is my main occupation interspersed with aimless gazing out over the wastes of water.  We are out of sight of land now and after Cape Finisterre at 5a.m. tomorrow morning I doubt if we shall see more main land before that of the U.K.

Monday, 19th April, 1948

My friend and I are still sleeping in hammocks on deck but we notice that the nights are becoming cooler as we approach England.
Every evening now we have a cinema show on deck but these have had to be begun later than they were when we left Palestine for it is still light at 8.30pm.
To get a reasonable seat at one of these shows one has to rush up to a preselected position as soon as dinner is over.
Several evenings the show has had to be put over in doubt for we sit expecting rain now we near England.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

16th & 17th April, 1948 - Ron's just watching the scenery go by...

Friday, 16th April, 1948
We are still following the coast; last evening we saw Algiers and other smaller Algerian towns on the coast.
During the night we must have altered course some degrees North for at 11a.m. we sighted the mountains of South Spain.  This coast line reminds me of Palestine, the coastal plain sweeping inland to the mountains.
The loudspeakers draw our attention to places of interest but most of them have names I find difficult to remember.
The cinema show last evening was completed without rain the first occasion I have known.
The sea although choppy this morning is again like a mill pond, the ripples are not breaking into the rougher white foam.  Porpoises have been leaping around us in shoals and we have seen a few fishing smacks whose occupants have waved to us.

My Pals & I stopped up this evening until we dropped anchor in Gibraltar Bay.  This was at 11.30pm so we viewed a brilliantly lighted scene topped by the darkened gloomy peak of the rock.
SS Samaria at Malta

Saturday, 17th April, 1948
We were still in the bay of Gibraltar when I woke at 6a.m. this morning.  Looking out from my hammock across the deck & the bay I watched the sun rising slowly up the northern side of the rock.  This fortress is by no means picturesque viewed as we saw it.  Too many large buildings crowd the lower slopes and these were built for practical use not for decoration of the rock.
Memories of Port Said
At 11a.m. we set sail again on the last lap of the voyage.  With the troops taken on at Malta and now these at Gib the ship is becoming a little more crowded.  I cannot imagine what conditions were like on board the “Samaria” during the War when she carried as many as 5,600 troops.
The ‘bumboats’ which came out to us at Gib. are like all other ports who permit this pestering, even to the silks etc. that they not unsuccessfully sell.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

14th & 15th April, 1948 - Ron is enjoying the cruise but no luck on the Tote.

Wednesday, 14th April, 1948
We sailed from Malta at about 10pm after setting off and taking on hundreds of troops.  I should imagine the discipline is very strict on land for the naval launches & other crafts were all spick & span.

I think I must have slung my hammock on the wrong side of the ship last night for I woke during the night feeling a cold wind blowing.  This morning we pressed close by the North coast of Pantelleria Island.  I got out my binoculars and this showed me the details of this face of the island.  Extinct volcanoes domineered the picture, the sides sloping steeply down to the cliff faces.  These slopes are deeply terraced between the old volcanics lava courses.  Houses are scattered thickly on the lower slope but not by the sea.  A lighthouse on the cliffs and a castle on the summit of a hill stand out from the other simple houses.
We shall see quite a deal of land as we pursue our course just off the north coast of AfricaCape Bon was sighted at midday.  All the coastline seems to have been volcanic at some time and as a result is very barren looking.
This evening we assembled on deck for an open air cinema show.
The weather has been beautiful with no sign of rain but as soon as the show started so did the rain.

Thursday, 15th April, 1948
There was no land in view this morning but at midday it could be faintly seen through the misty low lying clouds.
There is a totalisation held on deck every morning to see who can judge the mileage covered in the last 24 hours.  I bought a shilling ticket this morning but was unlucky.  Judging from the map of our route and our average speed I should think we should arrive at Gibraltar tomorrow night.
This afternoon I spent reading with the usual break for tea and a bun at 3.30pm.  Yesterday we each received a bulk ration for 11/-.  This consisted of 300 cigarettes, a bar of chocolate, two rolls of sweets & six chocolate biscuits.  This was very cheap but I did not need so many cigarettes but had to have them to get the other articles.

Monday 17 February 2014

12th & 13th April, 1948 - Settling to life on board - swinging hammocks on deck.

Monday, 12th April, 1948
We are now getting settled down to our temporary home.  The messing is good and the sleeping which we do in hammocks on deck, is passable.  These are the main things, for the others we manage.  Toilets if hurried are completed every morning early.
For recreation we can walk the decks or lie on them with a book or just lie talking.  Over the inter-com system we get musical programmes and the news and in the late evening some of the ships crew get out their instruments for a sing song.
The Police are wandering around trying to use all 2nd class facilities but so far I think the only ones who have escaped the Red Caps detection are those in civilian garb who use the 2nd class lounge.
The sea has been like a mill pond all day and this morning we saw an island off the coast of Crete.

Tuesday, 13th April, 1948
Every night now the population of deck sleepers increases.  The chaps are beginning to realise the advantages of sleeping up in the clean open air.
Recreation facilities are becoming routine.  For myself I read and talk with my immediate friends.  Over the loudspeakers we get a half hour of “swing” music in the morning followed by a “Quiz” and a half hour of light classical music in the evening.  Otherwise the loudspeaker shouts for certain people to report to other certain people.
In all, up to now the voyage has been a continuously pleasant relaxation.
Valletta Harbour, Malta, 1948
This evening while I was in the ships cinema the ship pulled in to Valetta Harbour.  After the cinema I walked the decks looking out upon the Harbour lights.  I wish I could have seen it by day for in the half light it was attractive to see.