With the editor’s permission I would like to tell you about an old friend and neighbour of mine. I first met Frank when we moved into the house next door. I soon learned that he was a retired bank manager, which well suited his tall upright stature and rather stern appearance. Not a very friendly sort, was my first impression, and the first few weeks seemed to confirm that, fairly soon, however, we became very good friends regularly meeting over a cup of coffee.
Frank was born early in 1902, not quite in Queen Victoria’s reign but certainly into a Britain that was only just beginning to emerge from the Victorian age. When I moved in next door he was already 74yrs old.
A scholarship grammar schoolboy from humble beginnings in London, he joined Barclays Bank as a junior clerk when he first left school. He slowly climbed the slippery ladder within the bank and, with a failed marriage behind him, by the outbreak of war, he had achieved a moderate level with the bank in the City. Already 37 he was too old to be called up for military service. Like many other office workers, he was expected to do a stint of fire watching. Being single he volunteered to do more than his share. And so he found himself in 1940 in the very centre of the blitz. He was involved in fighting incendiary bombs and often found himself surrounded by fire. He was appalled by the extent of the damage and determined that he wanted to do his bit in fighting such an enemy.
He volunteered for the Navy, initially he trained as a wireless operator but he was soon selected for promotion and was commissioned as a full lieutenant. He was posted to a destroyer and served part of his time as torpedo officer. He saw a great deal of action, part of the time his ship was directed to act as protection for the convoys transporting war materials to Russia. The Mermansk convoys were infamous, sailing close to the Arctic in stormy seas and hunted by U-boats. If a boat was sunk, and many were, there was little hope for the crew, the water temperatures, sometimes sub-zero, were such that people could not survive for many minutes and, because of the fear of U-boats, it was often considered too dangerous to try and pick up survivors. The destroyer, being a relatively small warship suffered greatly in the stormy seas. The high winds, frequently encountered, blew the spray over the ship and this sometimes froze on the ship’s superstructure and had to be chipped off to avoid the risk of capsize.
Whilst in the navy he met Annie, a serving Wren. In Scotland Annie commanded a launch, with a small crew of Wrens, that transported naval personnel from ship to shore. After the war Annie and Frank were married and had a son, John. Frank went back to the bank and was manager of a large branch in North London. In those days’ banks were very different, branches were more autonomous and managers were kings with the power to say yes or know to requests for loans. (in the early 1960s my bank statements were still handwritten).
He retired at the age of 62 and bought a new house in Chrishall, a village 12miles from Cambridge and 5miles from Saffron Walden, which was where I met him and Annie 12yrs later. The location was partly inspired by his son, who was a brilliant scholar and had obtained a scholarship to Cambridge and carried on there as a research fellow. Frank loved the village; it still had a certain amount of rustic charm. At the time there was a plan for a third London airport, north of London. Attention had focussed on two possible locations Nuthampstead and Stansted. Frank was horrified, the Nuthampstead plans meant that the boundaries for the airfield were very close to Chrishall, the runway ended uncomfortably close. He was a founder member of ‘No to Nuthampstead’ and in that role he contributed to the Roskill Enquiry. He also became a member of the Parish Council and, subsequently chairman, and later, a member of the District Council. By the time I met him, however, he had retired from those activities and was living quietly with Annie.
We much enjoyed our chats and we roamed widely in conversation topics. Outwardly he was almost the perfect image of a South of England Tory, but, in fact, he had strong social conscience, he was horrified when Margaret Thatcher became PM and was highly critical of her policies. His sympathies were always with the underdog. The selling of council houses and the poll tax, were typical of the things that made him simultaneously angry and sad.
He was always complaining about the speed of modern life and the speed with which people drove on local roads. He carried on driving himself to the end, he always had a Rover car and drove according to his own ideas, I used to joke that he could often be seen holding up the tractors.
At the age of 90 he had a fall and broke his pelvis. He was successfully operated on at Addenbrookes, but he never recovered, his age and frailty were against him.
We used to look out for Annie and took her shopping in Saffron Walden every week. Tragically, not long after Frank died, John, at the age of 35, died of a heart attack whilst driving in France. Poor Annie was devastated, she was left very alone, her relatives were in Scotland. They did visit a few times, but she opted not to move back there, she did not want to leave the house and village. She lived on for a further ten years, when she died, she left everything to her nieces and nephews and their children. She had moved in to a care home not long before she died, but that was after we had moved away. When we moved our neighbour on the other side had looked out for her.
Frank was a hero; he had no need to put himself in the front line during the war. He had fought to save his village and did much valuable work for the community. It was a blessing, however, that he died whist John was living and never knew that John would not be there for Annie.
It just seemed such a shame that they should both die with so few people to mourn and remember them.
So here we are in lockdown again.
To say that I am disappointed with the behaviour of some people is a major understatement. Such blatant disregard for the rules, and the dangers, is amazing. The raves, where a hundred or more were dancing in very close proximity with no masks. People discharging from pubs only to congregate in large numbers in the street. On one occasion, the night before the pubs were being ordered to close, people coming out of the pub were having a party in the street, it seemed as though they were saying ‘Come on guys, this is our last chance to infect each other, let’s make the most of it.’
I get tired when you hear public officials asking ‘What is the science behind closing pubs, or whatever?’. Or ‘Give us a road map for the way out of tier 3, or lockdown’.
The science is quite simple to understand, Covid 19 is a respiratory disease transmitted from person to person by close proximity and by indirect contact. The way to avoid lockdown or tier 2 or 3, and the road map to get out is simply by obeying the rules, avoiding close proximity, wearing a mask and trying to avoid touching anything touched by others, washing hands frequently when this is unavoidable.
Looking back it is clear that the government has made a number of mistakes, it was clearly wrong to go to extremes when urging people working at home to go back to work, and equally wrong to encourage people to eat out by paying part of the bill, effectively encouraging socialising. But they have had difficult decisions to make, would you have done things very differently? (I can hear all the yells).
There is really only one very big mistake that they made and that was to think that enough of the great British public would behave sensibly. Probably the majority have, but that minority has been far too large.
Track-and-trace has been severely criticised, the number of contacts having fallen to 60%, perhaps it does not deserve quite such severe criticism because the numbers tested daily is now large, with the result that the number of people detected with the virus daily is in the thousands. With these numbers, and each infected person having had as many as ten contacts, the task of getting in touch with that number each day becomes enormous. Whilst they may have been getting in touch with an increasing number, when expressed as a percentage it does not look good. Unfortunately, it seems that many of the people contacted and asked to self-isolate are not complying, thereby undermining the whole operation.
A final comment. I know it is easy for me to talk, but when I hear people say that they cannot manage on 80% of their income, I cannot help drawing comparison with the time when we were facing another national emergency, that is, the second world war. Then men were compulsorily required to leave their jobs and join the armed services, they received a few shillings pocket-money and their wives and families received little more than a pittance to live on. Not only was there financial problems for the family but for some there was a very real possibility of losing their home or being killed even.
I think that Jeremy has been unfairly treated, his real crime, it seems to me is that he has been too outspoken in his condemnation of Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians. In that he has been absolutely right, their behaviour has been in defiance of the United Nations and has been grossly unfair and seriously in violation of human rights.
It seems to me that there are those that have been determined to get Jeremy for that.
I am aware that it has been possible to point to acts and words from within the Labour Party that can be seen as antisemitic but I suspect that Jeremy is also right when he says that this has been exaggerated.
At the time of writing I am hoping as hard as it is possible to hope that a sensible trade deal with the EU will be agreed. That is the only hope left to minimise the inevitable damage of Brexit.