Some years ago, I was at a pavement cafe in East Berlin when a frail old woman came along. With little to get steamed up about except why it is so difficult to get trousers with a 33-inch inside leg, my mind began to run away with itself. What had this woman seen? What had she endured?
Before I had worked out how I might make an approach without alarming her, she had finished her coffee and set off on her shuffling way again. I decided to follow. She turned into one of those streets of smoke-blackened tenements you see in old films where Gestapo cars screech to a halt and leather-coated men leap out and rush into the building to arrest someone. Momentarily captured by this image, I lost sight of the woman and assumed she had disappeared up one of the closes. And that was that.
I was interested in old woman's story because of my own father's stories about his experiences in the second world war. In 1939, he was a 27-year-old farm labourer in the Mearns. With the 'Great War' ominously being referred to as the 'First War', he reckoned he would soon be conscripted into the infantry, shortly afterwards to be machine-gunned to death somewhere along an updated version of the Western Front. But he had a cunning plan: rather than wait to be conscripted, he would volunteer for something less risky. So, days before war was declared, he volunteered to be truck driver. He couldn't drive, but nobody bothered to ask. Thus began an episode which was to involve a five-year period without home leave.
It wasn't long before cracks appeared in his plan. While ferrying ammunition from Sevenoaks to Dover, a roaming German fighter scored a direct hit on one of the trucks further up the convoy. Such was the scale of the explosion that no trace of the driver was ever found. The plan fell apart altogether on a troopship as it crossed the Bay of Biscay on its way to North Africa. As they threw up over the side one day, a fellow soldier advised him that he need not have volunteered because his job had been a reserved occupation. Minutes later, a torpedo trail could be seen streaking towards the ship. Such was the horror of seasickness that he was disappointed when it missed.
As he moved across North Africa, up through Italy, to Austria and into Germany, he saw people murdered and starved and blown to pieces. He saw prisoners shot, some because they were an inconvenience, others by vengeful soldiers. In Austria, he saw an officer offer his pistol to a camp inmate and then invite him to shoot one of the guards. The inmate declined and the officer shot the guard himself.
At Monte Cassino his job each day was to drive his truck to a designated point where it was loaded up with dead bodies. He would take them to a temporary mass grave, tip them in, and then go back for another load. The thing that stuck most in his mind was a single death. It was in North Africa, a 10-year-old boy beaten to death, bit-by-bit, by drunk French legionnaires, for fun.
But, ambivalence probably capturing the nature of humanity better than categorisation, he liked his time in the war. He saw things he could never otherwise have seen. He saw the remains of ancient civilisations in North Africa; he saw Rome and the Alps and Berlin, ruined though it was. He saw Montgomery from only a few yards away, and De Gaulle from further away.
Then there were other reasons for liking bits of his war. It taught him to drive and so enabled him to get a job as a corporation bus driver when he was demobbed. His Public Service Vehicle licence was the only formal qualification he ever got and he was very proud of it. But what he really wanted was to be a tradesman – any trade. It was like having a degree nowadays, only harder to get. He was unexpectedly set on that path one day at morning parade in the North African desert when the sergeant called for anyone who had been a joiner in civilian life to step forward. He stepped forward. It was a risk, for only the day before the sergeant had asked for any accountants to step forward, and when one did, he was ordered to peel potatoes.
My father was luckier: he was ordered to build a hut for an officers' toilet. From that day forward, he simply decided that he would call himself a joiner. But he did not escape potato peeling. A few days after completing the hut, he was caught putting it to its intended use and was put on a charge for using an officers' toilet.
Back home, after a few years bus driving by night and making things from patterns in The Woodworker
magazine by day, he gave up bus driving and made his living as a joiner. But for him, the greatest result of the war was Clement Attlee's government. Even though he had always voted Tory – something that wasn't all that unusual for people like him in those days – he had no difficulty recognising the spectacular transformation of his and his family's prospects brought about by Attlee.
He died in 2000 after being hospitalised for many years with Alzheimer's. On my last visit, he became agitated when I told him who I was and he said: 'But you were killed in the war!'
I have been wondering recently what he might have made of the democracy for which his generation endured so much falling so easily to a belligerent rabble of right-wing nationalist zealots and preferment seekers. Perhaps, though, I am being too despondent. After all, the old woman in Berlin survived, and her country became a wealthy and respected beacon of democracy.