Wednesday, 23 June 2010


In May 1978 I was still nineteen. I wouldn't be twenty until that following August. I struggle now to remember the detail of what I did on a day to day basis. It all seems a very long time ago. It is a long time ago.

I was living in Manchester then. I had left Newcastle in the long hot summer of 76 to go to art college. I had never been away from home on my own apart from a couple of school trips. I could boil and fry an egg and pour milk on cereal and that was about it. I knew no one.

Now I was heading towards the end of the first year of my illustration course, wondering if I had made a terrible mistake. Wasn't I really a painter? Or a writer, maybe? I had been on the foundation course the previous year and had lived in digs in a half-demolished area of Old Trafford. But I was living a more authentic student life now, sharing the top floor of a house in West Didsbury.

I was hanging out at Mr Marvel's Cafe and painted murals for Harvey, the kind-hearted owner, who made great cheesecakes and taught me how to play backgammon (something I have annoyingly forgotten).

I struggled to keep up with the challenges of my increasingly complex personal life. I read Jean-Paul Sartre and the Roads to Freedom trilogy seemed to make complete sense to me in a way things do when you are nineteen. I began a long autobiographical and existentialist novel that I burnt in a saucepan in front of my girlfriend in an unwittingly comical and Woody Allenish 'big' gesture. That showed her!

I remember being almost unbearably sad at times and writing pretty unbearable poems about how that felt. I remember feeling that everyone else seemed to know what they were doing except for me, and wondering how that could be. Had there been some meeting I hadn't attended? I remember feeling lost a lot of the time.

But I also remember being really happy, of having wonderful moments of carefree joy. I remember great friends and falling in love with them with a platonic passion. I remember a lot of silliness and laughter. I played a lot of pool and began to develop what I like to think was a unique dancing style.

I had begun to see a lot of live music and I was lucky enough to be at college in a city with a lot of music venues. In May 1978 I went to see Elvis Costello at Rafters. I was standing near the back with my friend Andrew Ellis. The crowd staggered back and then forward and we seemed to be washed towards the stage - or that's my memory of it. I wasn't even that big a fan - not like Andrew - but that gig stands out somehow. It's strange how some do.

We were at the fag end of the Callaghan Labour government. The Lib-Lab pact was about to collapse and the Winter of Discontent would follow, with the grisly element of mortuary workers going on strike in Manchester leaving bodies unburied. Thatcher was waiting in the wings like a music hall villain.

The month before I had gone down to London to march to Victoria Park for the Rock Against Racism concert featuring the rather incongruous sight of Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 singing White Riot with the Clash. My political views continued their leftward drift.

In May 1940 my father was also still nineteen. He was in the Royal Artillery and had been sent to France and Belgium with the British Expeditionary Force. He had joined the army as a boy soldier but had later returned to civilian life. But his training meant that he was among the first wave of conscripts when war broke out.

The BEF were routed and forced to spike their guns, destroying them rather than let them fall into enemy hands. Then they made a frenzied dash to the coast. In May 1940 my father was standing among the sand dunes at Dunkirk waiting for his turn to get off the beaches. Queues of men snaked out into the water. Vessels of every size floated offshore trying to get them home. German planes bombed and strafed. The dead drifted back and forth in the shallows.

My father was among the last to leave the beaches of Dunkirk, getting away via the ruptured stone mole on a Royal Navy ship. As soon as he was aboard he was put to work as a spotter, but he maintains his services were redundant because any plane they saw was German. He says he never saw an RAF fighter the whole time and the RAF were roundly condemned as cowards - something that would get forgotten when they were awarded hero status during the Battle of Britain.

Bruised, battered, exhausted and traumatised, the young soldiers arrived back in England to hear that the fiasco of Dunkirk had been spun into a myth of plucky fortitude in the face of disaster. There is telling footage at the Imperial War Museum of soldiers disembarking. The fruity voice of the newsreader says that they our brave boys aren't downhearted or some such drivel while the faces of those poor men stare out, dead-eyed.

My father does not like to talk about Dunkirk. He is frustrated to be associated with what he sees as a defeat. He never bought the myth of 'Dunkirk Spirit'. He never used to talk about it at all, but in recent years he has opened up a little more. Having said that, he talks in well-rehearsed anecdotes and I suspect that they mask the messy truth of what it was really like.

I asked him once what he thought of the infamous opening scenes of the D Day landing in Saving Private Ryan, firmly expecting him to dismiss it as over the top. He wasn't involved in D Day, but the sequence clearly had a horrible resonance for him. He looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, 'It was like documentary footage.'

My father will be ninety this year. His stays in hospital have started to outweigh his time at home. The recent Dunkirk anniversary passed him by. He was too ill to notice much about it and would have probably said, 'I can't see why people make such a fuss about it' - his usual line when it comes up in conversation. Under the influence of morphine recently he has hallucinated and it was always about Dunkirk. It is always there.

Of course it is! I remember an Elvis Costello gig for Christ's sake. I could even make a decent stab at what he was wearing.

My dad asked me once why I was so interested in Dunkirk, in the war and his part in it. Apart from the fact that he was present at a pivotal moment in history, I said, our fates were tied together: when he was rescued from Dunkirk, so was I. If he had not lived, then I would not have been born.

My father wasn't allowed to be nineteen in the way that I was allowed to be nineteen. Hell, he wasn't even allowed to be fourteen - out of school and into work at an age when I was still allowed to be a child.

We were pretty intolerant of each other when I was in my teens, me and my dad. I was happy to leave home. He could be a difficult man. We argued a lot. And besides - you think you know everything when you're nineteen.

But I cannot imagine how I would have coped with what he had to cope with at Dunkirk. I have never been tested in that way. Would I have done what I had to do, or would I have curled myself up into a ball and pissed myself?

I'm so lucky that I never had to find out.


  1. I recently indulged in a purely non-curricular history lesson on Dunkirk. It was narrative history and was a result of the horror I felt at chatting to 10 year olds from Bristol discovering they had no idea what Dunkirk was. I told them the story and they were amazed that in Indestructible England such a thing could ever have happened, that so much could pivot around such a fragile moment.

    One of their fascinations was with the soldiers standing in the water waiting for boats to pick them up. The idea of young men having to do that and not being able to do as they pleased was one that was discussed at length; the idea of putting your job or service above your own safety and liberty. I hope it was a moment of realisation for them of what happened and that it involved real, thinking, breathing people.

  2. Good on you. It can be hard for children to connect in an emotional way with an event like Dunkirk - all that black and white footage and a geopolitical situation they don't understand.

    It always comes down to real people - soldiers and civilians - but that often gets lost. Every one of those men you see in the photos and newsreels was an individual whose life was forever fractured by that event and the events that followed.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to say so.