|Lenny The Lion Goes Back To Barcelona|
“Hello,” he began – or was it “¡Hola!” You will forgive me if I can’t quite remember whether he, the lion that is, addressed me in English or in Spanish. It had been, as I explained, a really rather long day and there I was, after a nerve-wracking battle through the rush hour traffic, finally through passport control in Barcelona, just about to board the flight back to London.
I looked around surreptitiously, just in case somebody else was addressing me, ideally somebody human. But no, there was nobody else in similar, audible whispering distance. I was also relatively alone, perched at the end of a bank of chairs, in clear view of the gate, just across a wide expanse of gangway, with the frankly garish gift shop on the other side.
“Yes, it’s me! Come closer. I don’t want to have to shout!” The voice appeared to be coming from the shop, from the skinny pyramid of plush toys, from somewhere around the middle row, one hung heavy with furry, smiling mammals and cartoonishly cuddly big cats.
The toys had certainly caught my eye earlier but I had thought better of it. Didn’t even enter the shop. I spotted a quiet seat and marched right past. I didn’t want to jinx anything, curse this latest attempt, by buying a premature gift for yet another baby who might never arrive, like the rest of its erstwhile siblings, all of whom had somehow slipped away before they saw the light of day.
As casually as I could, I approached the rack of toys, trying my best to look like a sane and standard day-tripper, instead of a lunatic, mad woman, apparently responding to an advance from a cuddly toy. By now, I had worked out the voice was coming from a little lion, who was opportuning me to approach, presumably for a longer chat. By now, he was beseeching.
“Twenty five euros. That’s all you’ve got to lose! Your kid will love me to bits! I’m begging you now? Liberate me from this stuffed and stuffy zoo! Surely you can’t let me go home with some spoiled kid, who won’t even care for me? I want to come home with you and wait with you, for your baby. Please, please. Please!”
To be honest, it was the 25 Euros that stopped me in my tracks. Bear in mind that I was still trying, at this juncture, to appear perfectly normal. As far removed as possible from some geriatric, baby-crazy, fertility tourist who was reduced to chatting to over-priced furry toys in an overlit, scruffy airport souvenir shop.
In the end, it was a split-second decision, fueled mainly by embarrassment. I just wanted this encounter to be over. Yes, the price was high but it was a pretty fair exchange for the return of my peace of mind.
I carefully unhooked my new friend from the rack, where all his chums hung dejected, still captive. I walked hurriedly to the till, with one eye on the shuffling queue at the departure gate and handed over a crisp blue 20 and a worn red 10 Euro bill. As I stuffed my purchase, furry mane first, into the top of my shoulder bag, I swear I heard a muffled “Muchísimas Gracias. You won’t regret iiiiiiit!” But by now, the gate was closing and I grabbed my change, turned on my heel and ran.
I had a window seat that evening. It was a crisp, clear, indigo night and a crescent moon glided alongside us, over the Pyrenees, all the way back to Gatwick. My new feline friend stayed snug inside my bag in the overhead locker. I didn’t dare eyeball him, for fear of another, unsolicited and frankly uncanny conversation. Nor did I think it would particularly amuse the earnest IT consultant in the seat next to mine.
A week or three later, we first watched and listened to the insistent beating heart of our daughter, who would be born 36 weeks later on February 1st 2013. Lenny the Lion was certainly her first, if not her only, toy. I am also happy to report that he is still very much loved and cherished and apparently occasionally chats to her too. At least he did when she was younger. Now that she is five, she may not have quite as much time to listen out for him as she once did.
I am actually rather sad to say that he doesn’t talk to me anymore, although I am pretty sure I have seen him wink in my direction, more than once in a while.
‘There’s been an accident’. A sequence of words, let’s face it, that you never want to hear. Wherever. Whenever. What made it worse for me – on this particular occasion - was that I had been more than half expecting the call?
I had certainly had my misgivings about leaving Buster in London. To be honest, it had gone against every single instinct, not to mention my better judgement, and here I was, about to be vindicated, in the worst possible way.
Harley had, unexpectedly, come into season and I was somehow persuaded that it would be more prudent all round to leave Buster in Bloomsbury, as far away as possible from her now patent - and rather pungent - spaniel charms. Patrick would look after him with his life and he would bring him back up to the barn in Oxford, just as soon as the reproductive coast was clear.
Whatever was I thinking? The last time our dear but rather flaky friend Patrick had had sole charge of our canine kids, he had taken Chippie and Cara to the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street in Soho, leaving mere minutes before a nail bomb exploded, killing three people and injuring scores of others. Could Buster possibly have fallen victim to a homophobic Neo-Nazi bomber or had he just run out blindly under a big red bus on Southampton Row?
Neither, as it turned out. The accident was in a way, far, far more prosaic, and yet it somehow still beggars belief. It was a hot afternoon in August and Pat had left Boo in the third floor flat, above the Queen’s Larder pub in Queen’s Square, where he did some casual work. The windows were all open. After all, the landlady’s three miniature Yorkshire terriers, couldn’t even get their paws up onto the sills.
Buster, however, soon worked out where the cool air was coming from, climbed up and poked his head out, to survey the scene below. Almost immediately, he spotted Patrick, sweeping the cigarette butts from the pub’s outdoor smoking area and, we now suspect, mistook Pat’s admonitory shouts as a summons. The rest is history and, of course, a rather large emergency veterinary bill to boot.
Now, with hindsight, it’s almost very funny. The idea of a chunky American Cocker Spaniel leaping from a Georgian garrett, bouncing off an ancient awning and onto the cobbled street below. Whatever would have happened if he had hit someone? It simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
Being Buster, he made us sweat, of course? Best part of a week, laying utterly immobile by the hearth, back at the barn, the vet unable to say, until she had seen the X-rays, whether or not he had broken his pelvis and would have to be put down, even though he was only six. He growled by the fireside for hours on end and made more than one spirited attempt to bite me, with the stumps that remained of his once Crufts’ champion dentition after the fall.
But he did of course survive to bite Tim another day and another few after that. He survived another six and a half years and, believe it or not, the Queen’s Larder Leap was not even his biggest adventure? You can read about how he was attacked by Staffies on the Common, not long after we moved back to London, here. Again, and once more, I really do mean miraculously, Buster managed to survive.
You will probably have worked out by now that Boo recently ran out of lives? He was a dog, not a cat, after all. Not long after Sidonie was born, we found out from the vet that the nasty lesion on the side of his mouth was the first sign of an oral melanoma which would, eventually, become inoperable and which is apparently the main cause of death for many male spaniels. There was talk of MRI scans and of experimental vaccines which might prolong his life by a few weeks but he was already 12 – a good age for an American Cocker – and we decided to enjoy what time he had left, without dragging him off to the vet every week for invasive and unproven treatment.
And we did enjoy. Sidonie, in particular, was thrilled to have her very own mobile teddy bear in the house and loved to watch him wandering around; his sight was going, his hearing too but there was nothing wrong with his sense of smell or appetite. Obviously, I’d love to think he was fond of her but I suspect it was tolerance rather than affection? He certainly looked rather raffish, trotting round the kitchen, in his colourful bandanas which helped (a bit) to cushion and swab the visible tumour.
A couple of weeks ago, the invisible cyst beneath his jaw, which had grown at an alarming rate since September, began to press on his windpipe and he was clearly in pain for the first time since diagnosis. My hopes of keeping the family together until Cyd’s first Christmas were not to be.
We took Buster straight from the vet down to the brother and sister-in-law’s place on the edge of the New Forest, where he had spent so many happy holidays with Harley, and laid him to rest under a tree, in sight of the house. It’s more than two weeks ago now but it still feels decidedly odd without him? The family dynamic is changed and we all, even Tim, never his biggest fan, miss him very much.
Especially, of course, Harley, who is the ‘lost dog’ of this headline. She arrived, as a puppy when he was about her age now and ragged him incessantly, from day one. She is as depressed as I have ever seen a dog and this is now compounded by Sidonie, chasing all over, puzzled as to why Harley doesn’t want a new friend.
So should we get another furry friend, if only to keep Harley company? Well, you know what they say: you don’t find the dog, it is the dog who finds you…
That was certainly the case with Buster, but that’s a whole other story for perhaps another day? I am starting to write up some family lore in verse for Sidonie so perhaps I will tackle it then. It will be called: ‘A Far Cry from Cruft’s’, in homage to Boo’s amazing dog show success before he eventually came to us, as a badly-treated rescue. We could never believe how anyone could have abused a dog who looked so much like an ambulant pyjama case.
One thing is for certain, there will never be another Buster! And if grief is the price of love, we certainly loved him very much. He was a funny, old furry friend, through thick and thin and, for many years, he was as close to a baby as we ever thought we were going to get.
The Dutch have a great expression – Hondjes Hemel – and soppy as it sounds, we console ourselves with the thought that our old friend Boo Boo Bear is now snaffling biscuits and woofing for attention up there in that there Hound Heaven. Happy happy memories!
It is now exactly nine weeks since Little Cyd touched down at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital to an overwhelming and humbling welcome from all our dear friends all over the world. Thank you all. We have both been so touched and south west London’s most spoiled baby would be equally grateful if she could see the extent of her new wardrobe and the wonderful toys in the nursery which now resembles a mini branch of Hamleys!
As I discovered during my predictably extensive pre-partum reading, it is easy as pie to find out all about likely attendant woes as sleepless nights, cracked nipples and marital breakdown. What is practically impossible to find, however, is any accurate description of the positive things and joy a new baby brings to the party?
Over these weeks, I have come to a couple of personal conclusions which I offer up here for your entertainment. Hopefully, those of you with kids will recall and relate somewhat; those of you without may feel relieved and perhaps some younger friends contemplating the eventual possibility of parenting may pick up a few cautionary points?
• Obtaining a reasonable class of degree from a well-regarded university is of no use whatsoever when confronted with the idiosyncracies of the contemporary baby buggy, the complexities of the car seat attachment or the buckles of the baby sling. Give me a 15th century Portuguese chronicle to translate any day…
• Should you choose NOT to dress your baby daughter exclusively in a range of day-glo fuchsia, powder pink or fetching lilac outfits, often emblazoned with nauseatingly cute and/or grammatically deficient slogans, you are generally regarded by the majority of observers as some sort of deviant and cruel mother.
• Your sudden – and perhaps unexpected - appearance behind the wheel, so to speak, of a child’s perambulator of whatever ilk, sparks a torrent of unsolicited, usually contradictory, often unwelcome and sometimes frankly bonkers child-rearing advice, from all and sundry. In the same way that complete strangers felt compelled to touch your baby bump (in a flagrant breach of the generally held mores and strictures of civilised society in 21st century Britain) passers-by now see your baby as the perfect opportunity to offer you the benefit of their "wisdom".
• This advice is invariably accompanied by an audacious candour, as bald as it can be shocking. Typical questions and comments can include: “That’s a funny name for a little girl. It is a little girl, is it?”; “Such a shame to dress her in such dark colours, if she is a little girl. It is a little girl, is it?”; “Just how much did you pay for that buggy/car seat/baby sling?”; “Exactly how old are you anyway?”
• Terrifyingly, the momentary urge to throw your screaming child out of the window in the vague hope that the foxes will dispose of any incriminating evidence, can be all too real. Thankfully, it is fleeting in the extreme and does indeed disappear as quickly as it rears its ugly head, more often than not melted away by the instant beatific smile from the erstwhile screaming child in question.
• If you are lucky enough to avoid the worst ravages of sleep deprivation with the blessing of a baby such as Cyd who is practically sleeping through already, you will inevitably be kept awake by your recently acquired anxieties about the burgeoning size of your carbon footprint and the likely contribution to inevitable global warming of the dozen a day nappy sacks you are committing to land fill.
• You renew your acquaintance with the strange and forgotten world which is the small hours of the morning - once all too familiar from protracted nights clubbing or essay writing, or from six times a year serious jet lag from the eight hour Hong Kong-UK time difference. You remember how, (even despite the London accompaniments of the occasional urgent siren or caterwauling vixens, hungry for grizzly baby flesh), the middle of the night can be a rather magical place, especially when you are hanging out with your brand new little friend.
• The fact that a pretty little girl looks disconcertingly like a 40-something, snoring, beer-bellied old bloke and shares so many of his mannerisms, facial expressions and gestures already, is somehow not as alarming as it should be, but really rather endearing.
• Canine depression is not, in fact, the evil construct of avaricious vets but an all too real and rather perplexing problem, which – to date – does not seem to respond to extra biscuits, cuddles and protracted walkies. Spaniel sighs and the mournful eyes of the once supreme, now utterly usurped, canine baby can pull on the heartstrings as much as any human infant wiles.
• A Gucci nappy bag is still a nappy bag
So there you have it - FWIW! Love to hear if anyone else has any similar aperçus!
Oh Harley! You will love her one day, we promise!
Do you recognize this woman? If you do, you are certainly giving away your age. Her name is Jeanine Deckers, better known as “The Singing Nun”, who achieved global fame in the early 1960s with a terrible ditty, called “Dominique”. If you don’t recall it, you can listen here, but do not, under any circumstances, click if you do not want to have its twee melody and desperate chorus stuck in your head all day.
For more years than I care to remember, people would sing this song to me, at every possible juncture. I came to loathe the Singing Nun and even, on occasion, to rail against my parents who had given me an unusual French name, difficult to spell and to pronounce and which, moreover, had a dodgy Francophone song attached to it.
So why, you may ask, have I saddled my own, brand new, daughter, with an unusual French name, difficult to spell and pronounce which has a dodgy Francophone song attached to it? Well, as any decent shrink will tell you: these family patterns can be hard to break…
Little Cyd is rather luckier than me in the song stakes, however. The less well-known but infinitely more charming song, “Sidonie” was sung by that antithesis of the Singing Nun: Brigitte Bardot. It featured in a Louis Malle film, also of the early 1960s, called “Vie Privée”. It is definitely a period piece but it has a charm altogether absent from the Singing Nun’s one hit wonder. Listen to it here.
When young Sidonie was still in utero, she was serenaded with the song on a regular basis by a rather legendary Frenchman called Pierre Jean Cousin, to whom I went for ante-natal acupuncture and without whom, I am fairly sure, my pregnancy would not have been so textbook and Cyd might not even have made it here?
Naturally, these chanson sessions were not, by any means, the only reason we plumped, in the end, for Sidonie - à la Française. So many, often contradictory and confusing, factors are at play when it comes to the tricky challenge of giving a baby a name that can define – or indeed restrict – them for the rest of their lives?
She wasn’t always Sidonie, of course. For years, more than a decade in fact, she was actually Sidney – given that any child of Tim’s was bound to be a boy? For several generations, the Kirkmans have only produced male progeny. So it was not unreasonable for us to presume that we would have a son and we had always thought about calling him Sidney – a fine, upstanding Victorian name for a boy.
Both our grandfathers were called Sidney. Tim’s grandfather was the extremely distinguished General Sir Sidney Chevalier Kirkman GCB, KBE, MC (1895-1982) who you can read about here. My Dad’s father was also Sidney and although he didn’t save Florence from the Nazi bombs and does not have his own Wikipedia entry, I still wouldn’t be here without him and neither would little Cyd!
When we found out, to our not inconsiderable surprise, on 26th September last year (my brother Rory’s birthday) that Squidley – as Tim was calling the baby at that stage – didn’t have any dangly bits, we both had to make quite a mental adjustment. Tim started to wonder whether he still wanted her to play rugby for England; I threw myself into a frenzied hunt for non-pink baby clothes.
But by then, we had rather got used to the name Sidney, which is slowly becoming increasingly popular for girls. Perhaps more so in the States but gaining traction on this side of the Pond too. I was concerned that Sid for a little girl was just too masculine but Daddy became increasingly adamant.
Then, one of my aunts (hello Granny Pat!) reminded me of glamorous American dancer and actress Cyd Charisse and Cyd seemed softer somehow? I still had my reservations but quietly started a campaign for the French spelling which again seems slightly more feminine?
"Sidonia von Bork" (1860) by Edward Burne-Jones - Tate Gallery Collection
Possibly the most famous Sidonie is racy French writer, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), author of "Gigi" and of such bons mots as: “the faults of husbands are often caused by the excessive virtue of their wives”. Not a bad role model for a 21st century girl? There is also Sidonie Goossens (1899-2004), a quite redoubtable harpist, champion of English music and conductors’ muse.
I must say there are times now, usually in the middle of the night, when little Cyd reminds me most of the notorious Sidonie von Borck (1548-1620), a Pomeranian noblewoman and femme fatale who was tried and executed for witchcraft. Unsurprisingly, this Sid’s antics passed into legend and she has been serially immortalised in art and literature, most notably by pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (above).
Little Cyd's middle name, as many of you will know, is in tribute to my late mother Tina, who again, may not have saved Florence from the Nazi bombs but who was, nevertheless, one of the most courageous people I have ever had the privilege to know.
Quite extraordinarily, I am almost exactly the same age now, with a brand new baby, as my mother was when she passed away in 1975, relectantly leaving myself and Rory to grow up without her. It often makes me unbearably sad that she cannot be here to see her new granddaughter but in that bonkers Irish Catholic superstitious way I quietly hope that Cyd might inherit, I console myself that she is not really so very far away?
The Second International Art Fair by Bruce McClean (b.1944)
(currently one of the only art works on the nursery wall....)
Are you sitting down? It is a query I have made more times than I can remember over the last few months. I was about to deliver some rather surprising news and I didn’t want anyone to fall over? Touch wood, no serious accidents to date, although I have witnessed several jaws drop and have seen more than a few usually eloquent friends reduced to jabbering, gibberish and even stunned silence.
The news in question was that, after many, many years of fruitless efforts and despite my extraordinarily advanced years, I was finally pregnant with a little girl, who is due on 15th February, which some of you may remember is actually Tim’s birthday.
Do hope you will forgive us for being what must seem rather secretive about this momentous news? We made a conscious decision years ago not to bore our friends with the details of this particularly protracted and often emotionally and physically gruelling “journey”.
We just felt that it was essentially of little interest to anyone who does not have a stake in the child in question? Many of you will also be aware of my own history of loss and bereavement and, believe me, having such a sorry tale of personal woe tends to give you a low threshold for sympathy and concern, no matter how very well meant?
As you might imagine, we have also had to be tested for everything under the sun but the good news is that, as far as they can tell, she is pretty well perfect and I, too, have been absurdly well? The words “textbook pregnancy” have been bandied about, much, I suspect, to the disappointment of the consultant, who was rather hoping for an ideal guinea pig for her “very very elderly prima gravida” research!
In fact, the biggest surprise was that she was a girl: the first Kirkman princess for something like six generations? We just presumed she was a boy but established a few months ago that there was a distinct lack of dangly bits on the sonographer’s screen and although we were only interested in ten fingers and ten toes, we did have to do something of a mental adjustment. Tim, for example, is no longer sure that he wants her to play rugby for England but I am rather more: well, if she wants to, then why not?
Sadly, we also encountered quite a few negative reactions to the fact that a couple our age were attempting to become parents? Some people simply don’t approve of assisted conception, which I do understand, and there were also quite a few people who suggested it would have been more public-spirited of us to adopt a child who needed a future? FWIW, we did explore adoption and I have actually written quite extensively about how the process in this country needs to be simplified. In the end, it was just not for us?
So I do hope you will understand why we have been so circumspect about broadcasting this news? It is hardly the kind of thing you can drop into a casual conversation and the fact that I just looked slightly plump for the first seven months meant that nobody remarked upon the fact that I was expanding! I am now however waddling around like a goose and am finally being offered a seat on the bus…
Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinions but honestly, this child is already so anticipated, cherished and loved, we feel absolutely blessed, if utterly terrified at the same time!
So there it is. I do hope you will be happy for us and wish us well as we undertake this slightly scary journey! For those of you who have kept "mum" so to speak for the last weeks, thank you so much! Your discretion was appreciated. For anyone feeling a bit miffed you weren't in on the secret, we hope you can understand why, after suffering so many heartbreaking disappointments, we were not happy to go public until we knew she was well and safely on her way?
We would really love to hear all your suggestions and memories of your own favourite childhood books as we are hoping that "Princess Squidley" (don't ask but do cross your fingers the name doesn't stick until she is in her teens....) accumulates a wonderful library of literature to open her mind and excite her curiosity?
Please don't feel you have to knit anything at all or seek out anything too terrifyingly pink? Don't you think this poor child has enough to contend with already! On which point, we have ruled out Aurora (Rory) as a potential name too? Enough people will be reminding her of her notorious uncle without drawing attention to the connection!
If you would like to hear more gory details, do send me a PM on Facebook or email at the usual atlas.co.uk address which I think is lurking somewhere on my own FB info page? Please bear with me if I don't respond straight away?
We will, of course, post some pics, once she gets here but I don't expect to be on-line that much over the next couple of months? I am also taking a rather well-timed break from the Daily Mail, where recent changes have made me even more reluctant than I was about my association? I am hoping to find a more appropriate forum for my work when I return full time - hopefully in the not too distant future!
A Very Happy New Year. It certainly came around rather more swiftly than I had been expecting! We moved into our lovely new house at the beginning of December and I seem to have been emptying long-lost cardboard boxes ever since. How ever do we accumulate so much darn stuff? One of my resolutions for 2012 is to live a little more minimally, wherever possible.
Like many of us in these straitened times, I have also been extremely busy workwise. As a freelance, it is difficult to say no to any offers of work, coming through whichever channels and in September, after quite a lot of thought, I accepted an offer to blog regularly for the Mail Online website. You can find out what I have been writing about lately here.
It has been a fascinating experience, not least because it is probably the widest audience I have every written for. The site reached an astounding 79 million unique browsers in November 2011. As I explained to many of my Mail-phobic friends (and I do understand completely why it is not their paper of choice…), this was a platform I simply did not feel I could turn down.
I write for the debate/political side of the site, not the fatuous celebrity news pages, and I never write a word I don’t truly feel or believe. They simply never ask me to, as they know there is no point asking me to give a particular “Daily Mail” style steer to a piece.
To be honest, I think my masters at the Mail would prefer me to be rather more ranty and right-wing but, as they give me many of the more “society” type pieces, I have ended up with a fantastic opportunity to put my 10p worth of what I hope is good sense out into the ether, twice or three times a week.
True, I don’t get to write for my personal blogs quite as often as I would like but the huge increase in audience for the causes I try to champion has been more than worth it. The piece I wrote in November - on the need for more funds for dementia research - received a huge and moving response.
Obviously, the response isn’t always moving or, indeed, measured. When I suggested that the Duchess of Cornwall had earned public respect with her dignified support of Prince Charles, most of the commenters went crazy. Some American readers (at whom the site is very targeted) honestly seemed to believe that Camilla, alongside Prince Philip, of course, had been driving the Fiat Uno which caused Diana’s fatal crash in Paris….
I was thrilled when they chose to run my choice for Man of the Year who was my father-in-law, Charles Kirkman, who sadly lost a protracted battle with prostate cancer, after a dignified and doughty fight in July this year, aged 78.
His death may not have started any revolutions and he didn’t invent any equally revolutionary computer gadgets of which I am aware. Nevertheless, Charles lived an exemplary, perhaps somewhat traditional life, and, for me, his quiet achievements are equally significant and worthy of respect.
I was particularly grateful that Charles’ final months, though riven with the usual indignities of terminal cancer, were as comfortable and pain-free as it is possible for this ordeal to be. He had exemplary medical care and sustained support from the family and from the state, particularly at Oakhaven Hospice in Lymington, where he was able to go regularly to give my mother-in-law much-needed respite and where he died peacefully and with due dignity.
Not all of us can expect to have such a dignified death after a life equally well-lived. Last year was also marked by scores of news stories, highlighting widespread abuse and neglect of the frail and elderly, in hospitals, in care homes and horrifically, by people in whom they have placed their trust.
I started this blog in 2009 as a way of raising awareness of elder abuse and of somehow trying to ensure that more of us had a happier ending to their lives than my own father, Fred, did a few years ago.
In 2012, we hope to be launching “A Happier Ending” charity. The plan is to work, initially in primary schools, with a series of volunteer presentations, getting the kids to talk about their own grandparents and elderly relatives, in a way that helps reinforce respect for the older generation and hopefully get them to see that elder abuse is wrong - in every single way.
As you might imagine, for a new not-for-profit, hoping to work with both children and the elderly, the red tape is simply endless and there is an awful long way to go. So wish us well. I’ll keep you posted on here (and via Facebook and Twitter) but in the meantime, do have a look what I have been up to on the Mail? All the very best for a happy and healthy 2012.
I think we all get a bit glum and gloomy around this time of year, don’t we? Our days are truncated, more or less overnight, the very last of autumn’s leaves tumble from the trees and there is no more denying that dull, dank winter is here. Somehow it seems an especially poignant and fitting season to set aside time to remember the fallen.
It is always a particularly sad time of the year for me. Fourteen years ago, on a dark Friday evening in early November, my husband Peter closed his eyes for the final time, at the end of an angry combative, but thankfully brief, battle with cancer.
He had been ill for months but it still came as a shock. We had enjoyed the most marvellous Indian summer and I began to hope against hope that the doctors were wrong. But then the clocks went back. He didn’t even last a week.
Peter died on November 7th and we held his funeral a week later. So, for me, Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday always come at a pensive and rather wistful time. That said, I welcome and even enjoy this season: the solemn ceremonies, the unspoken solidarity between poppy wearers, the stirring, yet heart-breaking, first bars of The Last Post.
Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday have taken on rather more resonance over the last few years. The unending stream of caskets containing the mortal remains of British troops paying the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan has kept the role of the armed forces, their dedication and their courage, in the public eye, if not always in the headlines of the news.
A total of 375 British servicemen have lost their lives since the Afghan operation started in 2001. The latest casualty, Pte Matthew Thornton of 4th Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, was killed by an IED in Helmand only two days ago. He was 28. In the prime of his life.
A few years ago, to be honest, Afghanistan barely crossed my mind. I certainly did not condone our involvement but I didn’t even know how to find it on a map. But then three members of my extended family were posted to the country and what went on in Kabul and in Camp Bastion suddenly took on an entirely new, and deeper, significance for me.
Since then, I have made it my business to find out a bit more about what is happening on the ground out there, about how dangerous it is for our boys, about whether or not our presence is making any difference whatsoever. I am not sure I am any the wiser but for me, the planned withdrawal cannot come a moment too soon.
My feelings were crystallised when we lived, for a few years, in the heart of rural Oxfordshire. Our old barn was a mile or two from the A420, the main Oxford-Swindon trunk road, the route taken from RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett by the military cortèges transporting the bodies of fallen soldiers to the John Radcliffe Hospital.
I will never forget pulling over, one day in July 2009, getting out of the car, to stand, head-bowed in sorrow and disbelief , as eight hearses, bearing eight Union Flag-covered coffins rolled slowly by.
Sadly, there is very little else we can do for those eight men and boys, nor for Private Thornton nor for the hundreds of others who gave their lives for their country. We can support their families and we can honour their sacrifice.
In their memory, however, we need to uphold a duty of care to the British troops who have seen combat, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, over the past decade. Of these estimated 200,000 servicemen and women, it is thought that around one in four will return from the theatre of war with mental health problems, ranging from alcohol dependency to full-blown post-traumatic stress. Unsurprisingly, ex-servicemen make up around 20 per cent of the homeless population.
Unlike those returning with physical injuries, those with hidden wounds are often too proud to get help, suffering years of psychological torment before seeking treatment. Since 2005, charity Combat Stress has seen a 72 per cent increase in demand for their specialist services, caring for the mental health of veterans. Last year, they had more than 1,400 new referrals, giving a current caseload of nearly 5,000 individuals.
Not every injury sustained in battle is a visible one. Yet psychological wounds can be just as painful, devastating, life-changing and difficult to treat as physical ones, requiring months and years of careful rehabilitation.
As long as our troops are still risking their lives in remote and distant foreign fields, we need to ensure that they receive as much support as they need, whether social, financial or emotional. not only while they are on the front line but perhaps more importantly, when they return home, to families and friends who have scant comprehension of the horrors they have seen.
So let us take time, in this sombre season, to think of the fallen and to give thanks. But spare a thought too, for the survivors, for the ones who did come home and for those whose sacrifice may be well be rather more significant than we suspect.