Friday, 22 April 2011

Thank you Mr Simpson : Help for Heroes

When I was about seven there was an old man and his wife who lived next door but two from my Grandmother's house. My Grandmother knew them both by their first names being the same age but to me they were Mr and Mrs. I used to wave to him sometimes across the garden fences and he always waved back and he always had something to say to me.  The conversation wasn't deep, it might be about the weather, or the state of my Grandmother's roses ( an amazing display always) or the smell of the honeysuckle in the evening. He'd have a question about school. I never once felt he was talking down to me or that he was too busy. If we met passing on the road where they lived he would invariably lift his hat as he walked past and smile as would his wife. It was a road I was often walking up, not least to see my Grandmother but in the summer without fail to head to the outdoor pool in the park as soon as school was out, then back to Gran's for tea and a chat.

I remember the first time I saw him. I was with my Mother walking back from town with the shopping. We had recently moved back to the town of her childhood and whilst everyone was a stranger to me, for her everyone was familiar, and people were pleased to see her and talk to her. On this occasion we were walking up the hill as they were coming down. We were dressed casually ( in comparison) and they both were properly cloaked and they both wore hats. Shoes were shined and she was wearing gloves. If I had wanted to check there would have been a clean handkerchief in her polished handbag and in his  trouser pocket.  A generational thing.

Across his jacket  he wore a line of medals. He had fought in the First World War and was proud to wear them. This in part is what made that meeting memorable to me. Like other men I knew he had been a soldier, only this was a war that I didn't at that time properly know about. I knew the dates and that it was a long time ago. I knew the phrase  a war to end all wars,  and that the Second World War had denied this. I knew both these wars had been fought against the Germans, a country I had recently been living in.  I knew that people died in wars. Or rather I knew the words. What I didn't know was what death meant to the living. I had no comprehension of the impact on people: war films, my tv film diet for years, some how showed, but did not tell, what war meant. What it means to be at war.

Mr Simpson always neatly pinned his sleeve to his jacket as he walked in his hat and suit with his medals in the street. I knew not to stare the first time I saw him but I did have to ask - later after they were safely out of earshot. My Mother explained matter of factly and plainly. Mr Simpson when he was a very young man lost his arm fighting in the First World War. Though it was a shocking injury and would have been hard for him, things were so terrible during the First World War getting injured like that probably saved his life and he came home to a wife who loved him and went on to have children and grandchildren. From hell to hope in a couple of sentences.  He wore his medals with pride and people as far as I could see accepted this. She went on to explain more about how when she was a little girl she was used to seeing lots of men with missing arms and legs, some begging. 

 (The First World War left the UK with 41,000 lower leg amputees (and this British only) and 9900 from the Second World War statistics from this source)

I had no sense that he felt he was a hero, for that generation I suspect it would not be a word to bandy about. I would guess that he wore them out of pride, that he stood up and did what he thought was his duty. Perhaps he had no choice, perhaps it was peer pressure. Standing up for peace in such a time would have been another sort of heroism too without the support of the masses, of the crowd. Perhaps the medals provided an explanation for the missing arm, saving questions. A statement silently told.

He didn't speak of the glory of war, none of my grandparent's generation did. They knew better. It is not a glorious thing. Perhaps Baldrick's poem whilst funny in situ in the episode, says it as it really is.

"Hear the words I sing,
War's a horrid thing."

The Guardian provides the statistics here for dark contemplation.  These are British figures not including US, or other allied forces nor those of the Afghan people. Everybody belongs to somebody.

Another century on from Mr Simpson, and for nearly a decade  we have been at war. We watch the funerals, the coffins saluted in the streets but what of the planes that return night after night bringing the horribly scarred and wounded. What has changed? The Poppy appeal instituted after WWI still effective and active. 

HelpforHeroes is an AMAZING  organisation of people, that has grown from a ground swell of feelings, their phrase Passion not pay, started it off and maintains them now.  It's stance is strictly non political. Bugger the rights and wrongs of war, think about all the individuals affected. A charitable body, a company ltd by guarantee with a trading company subsidiary which funds 100% of the administration costs, leaving EVERY SINGLE PENNY donated to be used where required. And quickly too. By partnering with expert organisations they provide significant funding and practical support for those that need it.

Since 2007 when the Charity was formed, the volunteers  have raised 97 Million pounds, built state of the art centres, funded individuals, families and pioneered progressive programmes, making a tangible difference. They have guaranteed 100% online donation to their cause and for other charities too by the astute purchase of bmycharity Supporting  the 21st Century Mr and Mrs Simpsons and their families. The acts of war sadly haven't gone away, but fortunately neither has the desire to support. Millions of people are not looking away in embarrasment but doing something, with a varied mixture of cash, time and courage.

Actually this is worthy of the word AWESOME.

When I think back to Mr Simpson I find myself having an inner argument about which arm was missing. I must be able to remember surely, but I can't. I've deleted that unnecessary detail.

Mr Simpson wasn't defined by his injury, he was defined by the man I knew. A kind man, who had gone away in his youth, come back, raised a family, wore his medals and raised his hat in greeting.

No comments: