Family legend has it that in early June, 1941, my grandmother Gladys was washing up in her mother’s kitchen when she heard the sound of the garden gate opening and closing.
Then, to her great surprise, she saw her younger brother Jim striding past the window, kit bag over his shoulder. She ran out to greet him, but he was nowhere to be found. Not long afterwards, his parents received a telegram with the news that all families dreaded (and my grandmother already knew): Arthur (Jim) Upton was dead at the age of 23.
From an early age, I was aware of this great uncle that had lived and died before I was even born. For some reason though, I thought he had been shot down over Malta. I don’t know whether I had just got his story mixed up with somebody else’s perhaps or whether somebody had told me a little white lie.
The truth was probably much grimmer: Jim, along with thousands of other allied troops, was left behind after the much-feted evacuation of Crete. There weren’t enough ships to take everyone to safety and those that were left behind were ordered to surrender. Several hundred escaped to the hills and, ultimately, freedom.
Jim was one of the unlucky ones; his official date of death, 2nd June, indicates that he also tried to escape but didn’t make it. The likelihood is either that he was bombed from the skies or that he was executed. Like many of his fallen comrades, Jim has no grave: he would have been buried under the olive trees or burned in a funeral pyre in the street.
Whenever we holiday on the Mediterranean coast, my thoughts turn back to Uncle Jim and I wonder what life was like during that peaceful time before the Battle of Crete. Would these boys have kicked a football around the burning sand, tatty cigarettes stuck to their lips? Would they have swum naked in the sparkling blue Cretan waters? And would they squinted through the blinding sunshine to eye up the local girls, flirt with them, possibly more? Knowing what happened next, I really hope they did.
When we laid another great uncle to rest a few weeks ago I wondered whether, had Uncle Jim escaped Crete, he would be alive now. He would be 91, so possibly not. But almost certainly there would have been children, grandchildren and maybe even great grandchildren. It wasn’t just his life that was robbed that day but that of his descendants too – my cousins once, twice, three times removed. It’s strange to think that if things had turned out differently, they would have been at that funeral and their faces would have been as familiar to us as our own. Another table, perhaps, would have been needed at my wedding.
And so to Carol Ann Duffy, the new Poet Laureate. When the last-but-one British WW1 veterans, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, died in quick succession, Ms Duffy penned a beautiful and profoundly moving tribute entitled, “The Last Post.” I love this poem because it sums up so succinctly the tragedy that is war and what might have been, had our loved ones not succumbed. So I leave you with said poem: it says everything I ever wanted to say about Uncle Jim but so much more eloquently.
Carol Ann Duffy
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home —
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce — No — Decorum — No — Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too —
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert —
and light a cigarette.
There’s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.