Monday, 23 January 2017

I don't know what it's like ...

When I was three years old war started. I didn't notice, at first. When shrapnel started to fall through the roof I did. Shrapnel? Jagged bits of twisted metal. about the size of a mobile 'phone. I collected them and stored them in a metal biscuit box. I kept it for years in case the Army wanted the bits back. When I was a bit older I watched the fighter and bomber planes high overhead, heading for Liverpool docks. We saw the flashes in the sky across Pex Hill at the back of our house.
Mr Churchill was our hero, struggling to defend us. Then came peace, with church bells and oranges, shortly to be followed by chocolate and bananas.
Mr Atlee was our hero, making sure that everyone who needed medical treatment got it.
By then I started school. It never occurred to me that going to school, and later, to college, cost money. My dad paid his taxes and the taxes paid the bills.
I learned you could grumble about the government and anything else you might want to grumble about. It was called 'Free Speech'. I joined in, at Speaker's Corner, in London. I got booed but nobody arrested me or shot at me. I stood for election to the Parish Council. I got five votes. Free speech and Democracy. I still didn't get arrested.
I suppose my parents worried a bit about me; it's what parents do.
Then I discovered Africa. Well, not quite true; Africa had never been lost. Come to think of it, it's where human life started. If you're reading this you'll guess the bit of Africa I discovered.
Over the years I came to know some of the people quite well. I like to think that they trusted me, and as the years went by some of them started to grumble. They grumbled about a government which 'disappeared' people, imprisoned them, executed them. I learned to know why a conversation might suddenly change from politics to weather or the price of rice. I learned to look away when a convoy of military vehicles roared past, ferrying 'that man' from the State House to the airport.
And yesterday, when 'that man' had flown into exile, I wept as a young friend said
'I am happy because my son will not be growing up in a dictatorship.'
I hadn't properly understood till that moment just how fortunate I've been during my 80 years.

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