Back to his tiny life
My grandfather returned to London after the Second World War. And he never again left the city of his birth.
Neither of my grandfathers ever spoke about their experiences during the Second World War. They both died before I turned 20 so perhaps they considered me too young. Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions. Or maybe — which I suspect to be the truth — their memories were simply too horrific, too raw and too painful.
In truth, I would rather not know about the fighting and the loss. But there is one part of my paternal grandfather’s story that I wish I could understand.
My grandfather, with whom I share both a first and last name, was born and raised in Bermondsey in South East London. And that, in truth, is where he stayed. He was born there, he lived and worked there, and eventually he died there. His family and friends lived there too. They didn’t leave either.
He ultimately owned a car — family legend is that his was the first car in the road where he lived — but he didn’t acquire that until his 40s. That car, like my grandfather, largely remained in Bermondsey. He would drive it to work just a few miles away, and he would drive it home again.
There were, I am sure, the occasional trips to the coast or out into the country, but my grandfather and my grandfather’s car were tethered to Bermondsey. With one notable exception.
My grandfather was one of thousands of British soldiers sent to fight Japanese forces in Burma (now Myanmar). My guess is that my grandfather probably couldn’t have found Burma on a map until he was transported more than 5,000 miles to see the place in person.
Together with his comrades, he endured three years of brutal fighting, often in extreme terrain and menaced by severe weather and the threat of disease. At least 15,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed during a campaign often described as The Forgotten War, so he was lucky to make it home at all. The only souvenir he brought back with him was lifelong malaria that would flare up from time to time, making him shake and shiver uncontrollably.
Then, when it was all over, he returned home to his tiny life. He had been halfway around the world. He had seen and experienced things that no person should ever have to endure. He had lived in a jungle. And then, having done all that, he retreated back into a tiny little part of South East London that he very rarely left ever again.
As someone that travels to far-flung destinations for pleasure, it seems strange to me that he would never again leave the country of his birth.
But, having travelled so far and for the reason he did so, maybe travel held a different meaning. And maybe he was so relieved to be home that he decided never again to leave.