It was seventy years ago this month, September, when the Second World War began. I would therefore have expected that – since I commanded many thousands of men in this war, thus giving a shot in the arm to my military career which had been flagging in peacetime – I would have been thinking much about Hitler, Poland, Chamberlain, and all of that.
Not so, for I’ve been thinking instead of my late son, Albert, of whom I had spoken in a posting of a few months ago, and who, when war was declared, became a conscientious objector to fighting in it. You will therefore understand how humiliating to me – the consummate military man – Albert’s actions were.
Since most conscientious objectors, being mere cowards, were thrown into prison, what Albert did, threatened my career in the British Army, for no army can afford have men leading it, whose sons are in prison for being cowards. Fortunately, belonging to what now would be called the “old boy network”, I was able to keep Albert out of prison by getting him a job as a firefighter, who would help put out fires caused by bombs dropped on London by the German Luftwaffe, and help rescue people from under bomb-caused rubble.
To give Albert his due, he did – according to his mother (my wife Gladys), and according to others who helped pull the strings to get Albert into London’s fire-fighting brigade – perform heroically during the London Blitz. This was obviously the residue of whatever influence I had on Albert when he grew up – an influence far overshadowed by Gladys’s, for I was away for long periods during Albert’s boyhood.
No, had I not been away so much, Albert would, when at Eton, have been outstanding at rugger and cricket, and, after Eton, would have become a career soldier in the British Army, and, during the war, would have become a decorated hero through killing many enemy soldiers on the battlefield, and later, after the war, would eventually have attained, like me, the rank of General.
Also, Albert would have married a fine upstanding girl, and have furnished me with many grandchildren on whom I could have doted in my old age. Albert did none of this. He was an abject failure on the rugger and cricket fields, was a pacifist, and never did find a fine upstanding girl to marry and provide me with adoring grandchildren.
In fact, Albert, far from finding a suitable girl to marry, seemed never interested in girls at all. Those friends he did have when growing up, were only boys his age, with his same interests – art, literature, poetry, drama, violin, piano and all of that. After Albert left Eton to study at the Royal College of Music – where he might have had more opportunity to meet girls, since they studied there too – he continued to have only young men as his friends.
I did meet two or three of them, and……well………I’ll say no more than that they were the very opposite of the sort of rugger-playing outdoorsy fellows I would have liked Albert to be friends with. Of his friends, it was Antoine who Albert seemed particularly to like, and with whom Albert went on occasional short holidays, mostly to France, as I recall.
When war broke out, I hoped this would be the end of Albert’s friendship with Antoine – given that war changes radically the circumstances of all who are sucked into it – and that Albert would now make friends with rugger-playing outdoorsy fellows who would introduce him to the sorts of fine upstanding girls from whom he might find a wife to produce the grandchildren I so wanted. However, Albert’s friendship with Antoine not only survived the war, but became closer, for, when peace came six years later, they moved to Algiers, where they set up a home together.
When I learned this, I felt I could not be more disgraced, for, not only did I have a son who had refused to take up arms in the war, but a son who – it was obvious now even to me – had for another man the love which dare not speak its name. All this, in addition to Albert’s changing his name, so he’d never again be seen to be associated with me, the father who had given him life.
I’ll break off now and will try to resume it next time, since my talking of all this has dredged up emotions so intense, I may have a heart attack…………