08 June 2016

The Weight of Silence

An obituary for an Englishwoman named Jane Fawcett, who died recently at 95. She was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the war, and deciphered the message that led to the sinking of the Bismarck. I've talked about Bletchley before, and Alan Turing, and breaking the Enigma, but I bring it up in this context to note that a lot of our witnesses to history are taking their curtain calls. This is the natural order, and marks the passage of time. It also means that we're losing an immediate living connection to a common, remembered past.

Yesterday (as I write this) was June 6th, the anniversary of the Normandy landings. D-Day was a big deal. The largest air-sea amphibious combat operation ever mounted, I think I'm safe in saying, it cracked open Festung Europa and marked the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Third Reich. Every year, there are fewer surviving vets who visit the battlefields and the cemeteries. The event itself recedes, and pretty soon there won't be anybody left that was actually there.

On a more domestic scale, my cousin Jono has a fairly exhaustive collection of his parents' personal effects. They've been dead more than a few years, and he's in effect the keeper of the flame. My sister and I have run a similar course, with our own parents' stuff, but we've divested ourselves of an enormous amount. The lesson here is that simply because an object or an artifact meant something to them doesn't require us to be their proxies. You can make a counter-argument here, though, and I think Jono's entitled to make it. Whether our own families were walk-ons or center stage, they were part of collective memory. They may have been present at historically significant turning points. Or not. But if they're not in the record books,. then as each of us in our own generation die off, our memories of that previous generation disappear with us, and those people disappear.

History is surprisingly empty, in this sense. Kings and generals crowd the canvas, but the background, the foot soldiers and camp followers, don't leave much more than a shadow. We intuit or interpolate, but the raw detail isn't always that sharp. A lot of them couldn't read or write anyway, and for a long time they just got squeezed out of the story, except as spear-carriers, literally. So losing our first-hand storytellers drops a stitch in the fabric. And all too often, these people will say, Jeez, kid, what I did wasn't all that interesting or important.

Well, yes and no. One of the more fascinating histories I've ever read was based on the accounts of a merchant family, trading out of Brest or the Hague or someplace - I've forgotten - and it was so many bolts of cloth or barrels of salt, but it was an amazingly vivid picture of daily life, in the commonplace. We forget that it isn't necessarily the sword fights, much of the time it's just making the car payments or shoeing the horse. 

So, here's to Jane Fawcett - or Miss Jane Hughes, her maiden name in 1940 - who may have fallen off the radar in the meanwhile, but I'm glad she was manning her desk at the time. And here's to all those guys who struggled ashore, or who didn't, or who never made it off the beaches, I wish I could hear your stories. We bear witness to the times we live in. We don't always sort the wheat from the chaff, or spin gold out of straw. The silence, though, is heavy.


  1. A good piece- the Fawcett obit was fascinating.
    And speaking of Bletchley- did you catch the first season of the Bletchley Circle which had to do with what happened to the women after the war.

  2. So exactly right, David. As I've gotten older, I find D-Day so painful that I avoid the anniversary. My father was an army combat engineer that landed on Omaha Beach. He survived that and the rest of the war, eventually rolling into Germany with a victorious army. He's dead now and I miss him very much, which is the reason I avoid the anniversary. He was one of the spear-carriers, as you put it, and never claimed to be other than that. The small bits of information that he occasionally shared were absolutely astounding in their ground-level detail, and riveting in their intimacy with terror and death. The loss of my dad, and all the others connected with that time, is truly the severing of an immediate connection to a world-changing event.

  3. Good piece. I just discovered a British TV show called The Supersizers, in which two people live for a week as people in a particular time period would have done - with emphasis on eating as they would have. The first episode is World War II, and reminds us of the rationing, the phony foods, etc. They put a week's worth of rations on the table and report that Churchill said it looked like a nice meal. Of course, his food wasn't rationed.

    Science fiction writer Connie Willis wrote two novels called BLack Out and All Clear (really two parts of one book) about time travelers going back to Britain in World War II, and she dedicates it to (I'm paraphrasing) "the taxi drivers, dancers, housewives, grocers, and plumbers who won the war." In other words, the home front, more of the people who don't make the history books.

    She quotes a wonderful story: a house in London is bombed in the blitz and one woman is pulled out of the wreckage. "Is your husband in there?" "No, he's at the front. The coward!"

  4. Did you know that he very last World War I veteran, Mrs. Florence Green, a British lady who was not a combatant but a 17-year-old canteen waitress during the last two months of the war, died February 4, 2012 at the age of 110!

  5. One more thing. There was a terrific author of mystery short stories named Dick Stodghill. He used to be a regular commentator on Criminal Brief. He didn't land on D-Day but he was in the first wave of replacements. His memoir NORMANDY is a terrific read. http://www.amazon.com/Dick-Stodghill/e/B00J8B4NDC/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_2?qid=1465402779&sr=8-2

    His blog is still up at http://stodg.blogspot.com/ full of current comments and reminiscences from the war as well. Here is one that combines the two; go down to February 12. http://stodg.blogspot.com/2009_02_01_archive.html

  6. David, well said. I enjoyed reading your article.


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