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From Omaha to Hiroshima.

He wasn’t a hero.

Young GMB in uniform

He was a bookish boy with an academic interest in anything and everything to do with flight – that’s flying not running away. His father and uncle had been World War One aviators – the uncle was a hero (MC and DFC) and died. The father, whose wits were very quick and eyesight very good, was not a hero but survived and after the war produced the boy whose eyesight was poor and who took after his mother who was of a nervous disposition.

When the next war broke out the boy volunteered for the Royal Air Force, not to fly but to serve in the RAF Regiment as an officer on the ground, building runways and keeping up, just behind the lines, with all the logistics of flight – that’s flying not running away.

Unusually for the time, he had spent his childhood holidays, between the wars, in France and while a bookish boy at Highgate School , had been paired with a German Jewish refugee boy (Gerard Hoffnung) – the one to learn English the other German – it worked.

On D-day +1, about a week after he had married my mother, a bookish young man who spoke French and German was running up Omaha Beach in Normandy under fire, soaking wet and more terrified than he could ever have imagined. His kit was lost and returned, rotting in sea water, to his young wife in London; the family thought he had been lost but she would not believe it (she washed his spare uniform repeatedly until it smelled fresh and she had had news that he was safe — well not exactly safe… He went on (with others) to fight through France, Belgium and Holland, where he lived with a young Dutch family facing horrible hardship.  Later he went on to use his languages (he’d added Dutch and a smattering of Russian), and his unit’s bulldozer to bury bodies, in Belsen.

Just when he thought that the nightmare was over (or was he really alive for the only time in his life) he was ordered to embark for the War in Japan — a war without the niceties of the Geneva Convention or Red Cross parcels, where capture could mean starvation or summary beheading.

He sailed through the Suez Canal and was half way across the Indian Ocean when the Allies detonated the atom bomb over Hiroshima (6th August 1945), and three days later, over Nagasaki; Japan surrendered; the war ended; my dad – Geoffrey Mitchell Buck (1922-1991), who was not a hero, survived and was re-routed to the North where, armed with a copy of the Koran and assisted by a Muslim bearer, he was seconded to the Indian Air Force to witness the partition of India and the death throes of British colonialism.

When I was a child my father used to scream in the night. Once he was showing me how to sail a dingy in Norfolk and I pointed out a duck — Duck! He threw himself into the bottom of the boat and went pale, with perspiration on his top lip. Then he got cross with me which didn’t seem fair at the time.

Last week I found and read a book of his (signed and dated 1947). It was Hiroshima by John Hersey, It contains first-hand accounts from survivors of the bomb – everyone should read it – it feels like a latter-day gospel about the sacrifice of people for the sins (and future) of others.

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Communication, lifestyle

‘I’ve never been to London —

–but I went to Birmingham once and I didn’t like it,’ warned Aled before I left, ‘Too many people!’

The Rotunda in the Bullring, Birmingham -- reflection on 1960's 'iconic'.

The Rotunda in the Bullring, Birmingham — reflection on 1960’s ‘iconic’.

Birmingham is quiet when I change trains — not quite what it seems.

I am bound to join the World War One remembrance pilgrims to the Tower of London on a suitably wet November day.

People in the rain

People in the rain

The trouble with cities is the constant state of flux where everything is changed each time you visit.

Today, at Euston, they have hidden all the bus ticket machines and amongst all the psychedelic signage the Mayor of London proclaims that contactless debit cards now operate the buses  (they may well do, but they haven’t reached Mid-Wales yet) — and Oyster cards — I have forgotten the one my daughter gave me.

‘Excuse me!’ I say to a passing commuter who spins round, wide eyed.  The young woman with strings falling from her ears has been dragged from a parallel universe into mine and is terrified.  She does not speak, she does not stop.

My daughters have warned me of the danger of my country ways — you have to walk in a bubble, Mum, it’s the only way to survive.  You mustn’t keep invading people’s personal space.

I’m not stupid, I do not ask the two policemen with machine guns and I resist the temptation to point my camera at them — sometimes it flashes automatically.

Okay, I think.  I can do careful.   I approach the next person from the front with my arms close to my body but in full view, I smile but do not show my teeth, ‘Excuse me!  Where can I buy an Oyster card?’

The nice young man directs me to the Underground and down the steps I go — like those on a harbour wall down into a sea of people, swirling about as flows from different directions meet in a turbulent confluence.  I join a current and am carried along.  I am a strong swimmer but I can feel the power and I know that I am not in a bubble.  Crossing the flow, ‘I’m sorry!’ ‘Excuse me!’ ‘So sorry!’ I join an eddy that buffets me back to the steps and up to safety.

Looks like I’ll have to walk — I’m quite good at that.

By the time I get to St Pancras reason has prevailed and it’s quieter.  There are only about two hundred people in the Underground ticket hall and the ways to the exits are clearly visible — I am not phobic — just a normal human being — with instinct.

Here, something strange happens — like an hallucination…   Fireman Sam helps me — really, in his high-vis suit, helmet and visor — he helps me with the machine, the queue behind was getting restive.  I thank him and climb back into the air brandishing my Oyster card and am able to share my local knowledge with several Geordie pensioners who are trying to get on a bus.  They are explaining to the bus driver that they have money — he cannot understand what they are saying and stares nervously from his glass cage.

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At the Tower, 800,000 ceramic poppies commemorate our fallen in WW1.  Everywhere I look, their descendants, their grand children, great grandchildren, great nieces and nephews, move slowly and politely, stopping to take photographs and waiting for someone to let them into a place by the railings to get their shot or their selfie — strange.  It’s raining and the poppies seem to miss their mark today but the snake of people, come to see them and be moved,  does not.

In London even the trees are grey, muted by urban substances and the Thames smells, as it did when I was a child, like no other river I know, but at dusk something strange happens.

At night there is magic in the city.

At night there is magic in the city.

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