A clip from a trip to the Western Front with the kids school a few years ago. Again, no further words required.
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible." T.E. Lawrence; Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Not many of you outside the RHF regimental family will know or of heard of Ronnie Hughes. He was a diamond of a man who passed away earlier this week. Ronnie followed Rosie's breast cancer updates poster here and despite his own frequent visits to hospital in the past months always dropped me an email after each post to wish her well. He was that kind of man. So sad that he just missed news of her improving situation.
I thought, as did many others I'm sure, that he would bounce back from his latest illness just as he usually did. I didn't know Ronnie while I was with the Battalion; I was at the wrong end of the pay scales apart from anything else. I had though, got to know him better in recent years through his fast wit and enthusiastic support for small projects I have been doing. I enjoyed corresponding with him, mostly over email and reading his hilarious posts both on the regimental forum and on Facebook. His book 'Reflections,' is a Regimental treasure and should be given to every recruit and young officer joining along with the regimental history. The truth is, he embodied everything that is good about the RHF in particular and the Scottish soldier in general. I'm pleased to have known him in a small and quiet way. We lost one of the good things in our lives this week.
In 2014 I posted a piece about Ronnie and his book, 'Reflections.' Here it is. His poem, 'The Ballad of Brenda McGhee,' is just a timeless classic.
Life’s not all bad, dull and dreary and as you know, here at Crumble we try and occasionally elevate matters by bringing something with a cultural bent along to feed the soul and cheer the heart. With that in mind I’d like to introduce you to what I firmly believe is a classic contribution to our nations literary heritage, the joy of which will far outlive me.
A book dropped on the doormat this week and its no ordinary book. Just once in a while, from the many hundreds of thousands of men who rotate through the Army the odd one will commit his memories and emotions to paper and in doing so capture moments in time that would otherwise be lost for ever. Former Drum Major of the 1st Bn The Royal Highland Fusiliers, Ronnie Hughes has done just that and those of us who served at the same time are grateful that he’s done so.
In his collection of poems and short stories called “Reflections,” which he collated with the help of a friends student daughter, he’s nailed an entire Battalions rich humour and sense of collective being. I can honestly say that my formative years spent with 1 RHF were the funniest I've ever experienced. There were some not so good times but those were quickly forgotten in favour of the high points and Ronnie’s book has brought a flood of memories back for me and others who are chuckling their way through it. Thanks Ronnie.
This is my favourite;
The Ballad of Brenda McGhee
In the town of Port Glasgow there lived a young lass, in a flat overlooking the sea,
That’s where I first clapped my eyes oan the sight, I hope never again for to see.
The ugliest burd in the whole bleedin’ world, yes folks you kin take it from me,
Meet Brenda McDonald McFadzean Coltrane, Fitzpatrick McGregor McGhee.
To say she wis ugly, wis putting it mild, as she sat by her windae aw day,
Gazing longingly oot as the world passed her by, in the hope that a boy came her way.
Twa bandy legs, and a wee crooked nose, Ailsa Craig wis the size of her rump,
Wi’ wan squinty eye, and a 52 chest, not forgetting that she had a hump.
Poor Brenda wis lonely, of that there’s no doubt, and boyfriends a no- no it seems,
As I looked in her eye, and she gave me a wink, not me pal, aye jist in yir dreams.
It seems such a shame, as I toodled aff hame, leaving Brenda alone at her sill,
There’s some ugly burds that kin capture a lad, of course there are some never will.
One day came to pass, this ugly young lass, left her windae ti’ go make some toast,
When in through the windae a burglar he came, and very soon wished he wis lost.
Wee Brenda she caught him alone in her room, as he rifled the loot frae her hoose,
This is ma chance, thought wee Brenda at last, as her boobs from her bra she let loose.
Wee Joe the burglar looked aghast, his face wis as white as a sheet,
Of aw the hooses he picked ti’ tan, and whit a god awful sight for ti’ meet.
Aw Christ whit is this, the burglar enquired, I only came in for yir loot,
That’s OK son, said wee Brenda with glee, only two weeks ti go, then yir oot.
The fortnight flew in and wee Brenda wis glad, at long last she’d captured a boy,
Virginity gone and two weeks of pure lust, the burglar wid make a good toy.
It’s fair ti’ say Joe didnae see it that way, he wis knackered and right puckered oot,
He longed for the day, he had to escape, doon the pawn wi’ the ugly hags loot.
Some years doon the line, wee Joe doing time, in his cell he jist let his mind wander,
That time in Port Glasgow he robbed the wrang hoose, aye, whit a major blunder.
Still sat at her windae wis Brenda McGhee, she wis smilin’ for aw she was worth,
There by her side was her 5-year-old pride, a wan eyed humpy backit wee dwarf.
This tale has a moral, and, yes it is true, ugly hags can get boyfriends, aye, even you,
Don’t sit at your windae, watch life pass you by, go make some toast, or even a pie.
Remember wee Brenda, the ugliest burd, that’s ever been this side of Oban,
Just make sure that when you leave your room, that your windae on life is left open.
Historical context from Ronnie,
"Let me enlighten you as to how she found herself on the end of my pen (so to speak) When I was growing up in the East end of Glasgow at the end of, and just after WW2, I noticed that there was a dearth of menfolk in my area, thanks to a certain wee Austrian Corporal. When the weather was fine, 'wimmen-folk' would often be seen at their window sills, leaning on a cushion or pillow. Conversations would be passed up and down the street and many even went on round corners into different streets. Now, thanks to the shortage of men (young and old) who never made it home, women just had a hard time getting themselves a laddie, and every street had a "Wee Brenda" who came up a bit short in the 'good looking' stakes, so she had 'nae' chance (until I came to her rescue with wee Joe the burglar.) I never met the mythical Brenda, and I certainly never frequented Port Glasgow, but when I put both together, it helped my words and the poem to flow."
Like half of the rest of the English speaking world, I am currently racing though the latest Jack Reacher novel, 'Make Me; an easy going three day popcorn read and we love Lee Child for it. (Why did they miscast Tom Cruise in the movie btw? Surely they need to find a gritty Lee Marvin type or was it because TC personally bought the rights?). Anyway, I offer this literary post not in praise of Big Jack but of another book I've recently finished, a thundering good read called 'War Beneath The Sea,' by Naval historian Peter Padfield.
In the book, Padfield walks the reader through submarine warfare in the Second World War from start to finish from both an Allied and the Axis powers, including Japan, perspective. His skill is in articulating the war from both a strategic and tactical view, giving us a window on the geopolitical challenges faced by different Navies, the design, build, supply, training and different fighting doctrine used by the Royal Navy, the Americans, Germans Italians and Japanese.
Thankfully, none of the enemy got it quite right, nor did we. Many of the glaring deficiencies of the Allied effort that have their roots in hubris and dogma at the highest levels of Allied command have been glossed over with the passing of years but Padfield lays them out in brutal and honest fashion. Had we in Britain for example, not allowed Harris to be so dogmatic in his pursuit of area bombing in Germany and released more aircraft to cover the Atlantic then hard won lessons in the Great War might have been put to more timely use and many lives in the convoys would have been saved. .
Similarly, the British hating American Admiral King could have considerably shortened the Pacific war had he targeted Japanese supply convoys transiting through Asian waters to Japan in the manner employed by the German wolf packs. Given Japan has no natural resources to speak of, how obvious was that? King wasn't a very imaginative individual. Releasing even small amounts of Liberator aircraft to cover the ' Atlantic Gap,' would have had the same positive impact on the war in Europe. No one country emerges with a faultless reputation . We made plenty of errors ourselves. We all know for example of the stunning effect intelligence derived from Enigma and Bletchley Park had on the war effort but did we know that German Naval intelligence had also cracked our codes? I didn't. It seems odd that we deployed so much effort into cracking their codes but didn't think they might be doing the same to us.
Where the book finds common ground in all the different Navies is in the descriptions of the privations, tenacity and courage of the submariners themselves. It was a filthy job. The Germans for example had a worse life expectancy than did our boys in Bomber Command. Submariners generally are a close knit and secretive group of men. Any sort of publicity has been deeply frowned upon throughout the post war years, given the nature of their roles in the Cold War. Driving nuclear subs around the Soviet coast was never something they wanted on the front pages. That is quite understandable and one wonders if the Cold War submarine story will ever be told in the same way that Special Forces deeds have become fairly accessible reading. With that closed group mentality though there is a cost and part of the cost is that the bravery of their forebears has become lost in the national collective memory. That is a shame because names like Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn VC DSO and Two Bars ought to be known by every schoolboy in this country. There are many others. Read Padfield's book and you'll discover them.
I can't recommend this book enough. It ought to be mandatory reading for officers of all services, politicians and multi national business leaders. It lays out is clinical fashion, the high cost of arrogant and inflexible thinking and of uncoordinated planning at the highest levels evident in all the combatant nations. Criminal really.
The brutal story of Jean McConnville, widow and mother of ten who was abducted and murdered by the Provisionals as a suspected "tout," in Dec 1972 will be remembered by most. One of "the Disappeared," her body was eventually discovered in 2003 by a dog walker.
This well written piece in the New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe is of interest to those who remember such incidents or who are students of the Troubles.
Happy St Patricks Day by the way.
I wish I'd written that. It has an understated elegance that perhaps is lost forever.
Every time we remember; Hitler and evil lose again
The 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and the recent annual remembrance parades have touched us all and each in our own way.
I’ll admit to a life-long interest in the conflict and like to think I’m fairly well and broadly read on the subject. I’ve taken though, to following the war in a slightly different way. I subscribe to both digital versions of the Times and the Telegraph. The Times though has a simply awesome archive of past papers and it is through these that day by day, I’m following the war a hundred years on.
True, some of the reporting may obviously be sanitised but I can tell you it’s massively more comprehensive than anything we’ve been fed in recent decades from Iraq and Afghanistan. I find it interesting on multiple levels, not least that the war is reported from all fronts and naval actions too are very well covered.
Short obituaries of some officers are listed every day and the vast majority are regular officers, most having seen service throughout the Empire with names such as Omdurman, Ladysmith and Mafeking often recurring. That will change as we move into 1915, mostly because there wasn’t much of the pre war regular army left. Each though has a story such as young Lt Arthur Collins above who scored a remarkable 628 not out as a 13 year old schoolboy at Clifton and the commanding officers of the 1st Loyals below that.
The paper exudes social history. I’m finding the personal notices both desperately sad with parents making public enquiries about the well-being of their sons at the front, “may be a prisoner of war,” and entertaining with romantic notices, “meet me under the clock…” There are too a great many notices in French, reflecting the wave of refugees in London, (not unlike today you might think!), and as the war goes on, a growing number of “disengaged,” servants seeking work, houses and flats for rent or sale and auctions of possessions. I expect all of these will clearly grow as the war goes on.
There are a few running debates in the paper with one of the most strident surrounding the decision of the Football Association to continue with professional matches. This attracts lively criticism with complaints about the lack of volunteers stepping forward to enlist at league matches. There are some who defend the game asking what separates the football players and fans from those who go to the theatre, horse racing or other sports and activities.
It’s a heart tugging journey each day punctuated only by the odd uplifting piece. It’s going to be a long four years but I’m nonetheless finding it rewarding and look forward to sharing the odd piece with you.
Having discussed the Great War I should end by mentioning the publication today by the Telegraph of a "virtual memorial" to our 453 dead from the conflict in Afghanistan from 2001-2014. Their average age was 22. The obituaries from family, friends and comrades for each of the 450 men and three women are warm and friendly as befits the changed times but actually, you feel the pain in the reading. God bless them all. We will remember, always.
The speeches are done, the marches, the meetings, the doorstepping. Those of us beyond Scotland look back and trust that sense and pragmatism will prevail for none of us want to see an economic and social darkness overcome family and friends to the north.
I have never before been made a freeman of any city, and although since the war I have been complimented by a number of invitations which I greatly value, your freedom is the only one I have felt myself so far able to receive in the hard stress of conditions.
It seems to me that Edinburgh, the ancient capital of Scotland, enshrined in the affection of the Scottish race all over the world, great in memories and tradition, immortal in its collective personality-Edinburgh stands by itself, and therefore I am here to-day to be refreshed by your very great kindness and inspiration and to receive the all too flattering tribute from my old friend William Y. Darling, the Lord Provost.
The old quarrels, the age-long feuds, which rend our island have been ended centuries ago by the union of the Crown and by the happy fulfillment of the prophecy that wherever the Stone of Scone shall rise the Scottish race shall reign.
I have some ties with Scotland which are of great significance, ties precious and lasting. First of all, I decided to be born on St. Andrew's Day, and it was to Scotland that I went to find my wife, who is unable to be present to-day through temporary indisposition. I commanded a Scottish battalion of the famous 21st Regiment for five months in the last war in France. I sat for 15 years as the representative of Bonnie Dundee, and I might be sitting for it still if the matter had rested entirely with me. Although I have found what I trust is a permanent and happy home in the glades of Epping Forest, I still reserve affectionate memories of the banks of the Tay.
Now you have given me a new tie which I shall value as long as I live. We call ourselves in our grand alliance the United Nations. Here, indeed, is an example of national unity.
And so the country is pulling together better now than ever before in its history. Cruel blows, like the loss of the original 51st Division in France, have been borne with fortitude and silent dignity. A new 51st Division has been formed and will sustain the reputation and avenge the fortunes of its forerunner. The air bombing was endured with courage and resource. In all the Services, on sea, land, and air, on merchant ships and in all the many forms of service which this great struggle has called for, Scotsmen have gained distinction.
Surveying both sides of the account, good and bad, with equal composure and coolness, we must see that we have reached a stern and sombre moment in the war which calls in a high degree of firmness of spirit and constancy of soul. The excitement and the emotion of those great days when we stood alone, undaunted against what seemed overwhelming odds, and single-handed saved the future of the world, are not present now. We are surrounded by governments and nations, all of us bound together in a solemn unbreakable alliance, and all of us bound together by ties not only of honour but of self-preservation.
Deadly dangers still beset us. Weariness, complacency or discord, squabbles over petty matters will mar our prospects. We must all drive ourselves to the utmost limit of our strength. We must preserve and refine our sense of proportion. We must strive to combine the virtues of wisdom and of daring. We must move forward together, united and inexorable.
Thus with God's blessing the hopes which we are now justified in feeling will not fade or wither. The light is broadening on the track. And the light is brighter, too. Among the qualities for which Scotland is renowned steadfastness holds, perhaps, the highest place. Be steadfast, then; that is the message which I bring you, that is my invocation to the Scottish nation here in this ancient capital city, one of whose burgesses I now have the honour to be.
Let me use the words of your famous minstrel-words which have given comfort and renewed strength to many a burdened heart:
"Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end."
With the current plethora of Great War documentaries on television it would be easy to become a Great War Grief Groupie, cheek set firmly over to one shoulder and immersed in a constant slaughter / innocents / sad / epoch, social changing loop of evocative “wave the boys goodbye,” nostalgic and theatrical emotional for a lost generation that none of us ever knew but one that we choose to believe we know so well, as if the average Pals Regiment recruit came from next door. It’s true that not a family in the land was left untouched by the Great War and actually, it’s just fantastic to witness the resurgence in interest across all ages in matters historical pertaining to the conflict.
I’ve enjoyed a lifelong interest in the subject and all its geopolitical and social derivatives. The more I learn, the less I realise I really understand. Just for now though, I would like to share just one wee small part of the massive canvas that is the Great War that utterly fascinates me. That is, the way people talked.
In a time when people could identify one another, their backgrounds, exactly where they came from, (by village, not just general region), by their accents, intonations and slang the sheer richness and depth of speech to me is an utter wonder. What might it have been like to be at Waterloo station as the trains departed for France with the general hubbub all-around of impenetrable fast Buckie voices, deep Hampshire burrs, fast witted cockney, lazy drawling Norfolk………….? For us, the fantastic diversity of our counties has long been homogenised into approximate North East / North West / South West etc regional groups and as each year passes we lose more of our spoken heritage.
One of the wonders for me then, in watching the Great War documentaries, is to listen to the real voices of Edwardian days. We can though, do better than snatches in a television documentary.
In 1916, an Austrian academic called Alois Brandl made recordings of British prisoners-of-war and their regional accents. By a miracle, they survived the bombing of Berlin in the Second World War while being stored at the Humbolt University and were ultimately tracked down by a linguistics academic called John Adams. Well played John. Treat yourself and take a peek into history by listening to some of these magical recordings.
In fact, the British Library website has literally, a door into another world with various projects such as the Millennium Memory Bank and their survey of English Dialects.
So what can we do? We’re hardly going to adopt an “accent of the week,” and pretend to be Devonshire farmhands from 1912 are we? No we’re not. The BBC are utterly rubbish. Their idea of diversification in being a national broadcaster is to grab the three nearest northerners hanging around their shiny new headquarters in Salford and stick them on the telly but its not really exploiting the breadth that we’re looking for in our wonderful country. ITV though are even worse. They give us bloody Downton Abbey which very much sounds to me as if its cast comes straight from inner-circle-middle-class Fulham in 2014............... well, that's actually what they are but aren't they supposed to be acting as other people? Idle script, idle direction and idle acting. I'd rather spend an hour kissing someone with the Ebola virus than I would watching that drivel.
Crumble then, is here to help.
You can’t get more diverse than the beautifully soft and melodic accent from Stornaway and that is exactly the sort of thing we need to hear more of to calm us after a stressful day at the office and the bloody awful commute home. Fortunately Anne Lundon, who at present is criminally wasted on BBC Scotland and urgently needs to be brought to the attention of the nation, is waiting for the head honcho’s at the Beep to hear the clarion call from the people.
Let’s celebrate the who and what we are as a country. Come on down Anne, West Sussex is calling.
A Captain Robert Campbell drops into our lives this morning from a bygone era. The Great War in fact when, if the facts are considered, many might have thought him from a bygone era of medieval chivalry even then. Newspapers carrying the story, which was dug out by historian Richard Van Emden, inform us that Capt Campbell, was captured at Mons, became a prisoner of war but was released on parole to visit his very sick mother in 1916. The only condition being that he returned and indeed he did. Surprising though it is, the logic was if he chose not to then other prisoners would probably be denied the privileged in future.
All of which brings to mind the farewell we collectively said a month ago to another wonderful character, the like of whom there are so very few left. Squadron Leader Peter Tunstall was a serial escaper in the Second World War, who had the notable claim to fame of having spent longer in solitary confinement than any other Allied prisoner, a total of 412 days. The Germans court martialled him five times and like many of his ilk, he eventually found himself in Colditz.
A leading exponent of the art of “goon baiting,” he devoted his energies after capture to both escaping and creating as much time wasting irritation for the Germans as he could muster. A figure straight out of central casting, it’s something of an embarrassment that he was not to be decorated for his conduct as a POW, (it’s a common misconception that most prisoners fulfilled their duty to attempt to escape; Unlike the Squadron Leader and his chums, most did not). His obit in the Telegraph is well worth a read.
I'm afraid we must roll back the pages of history to explain where we are and how we got here but don't worry; it won't take very long. We're travelling back all the way to the 24th March 1980 and deep into the golden age of British televison comedy to Episode 5 of "Yes Minister," entitled "The Writing on the Wall." (hat tip to Mish for the reminder).
Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?
Hacker: That's all ancient history, surely?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn't work. Now that we're inside we can make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like old times.
Hacker: But surely we're all committed to the European ideal?
Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.
Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?
Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It's just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
Hacker: What appalling cynicism.
Sir Humphrey: Yes... We call it diplomacy, Minister.