Just occasionally, you find yourself in touch with history. Such opportunities often lurk in innocuous beginnings. Yet if the interest is nurtured and explored at a steady pace, an intricate tale often emerges. For some, it is mere history. A lesson learned. For others, it is a reawakening. A lesson to extol.
For more than two decades, my godmother Vera and her Wiltshire husband Tim, had joined my parents to celebrate a Christmas meal each year in the manse. These were Glasgow days, in the fifties and the sixties. Troon had been our home since 1984 and seven years later, whilst hosting this four generational gathering, this story emerged.
Lunch was over. All had retired to the lounge. Then the soporific warmth of the fire, generated by logs recently gathered from Fullarton woods, ensured twenty winks was enjoyed by the older members. Fiona and Laura had respected their need for a nap but impatiently awaited their stirrings. In time, eyes opened, limbs stretched, wristwatches were consulted and Fiona took centre stage.
‘Let’s play a game,’ she challenged.
‘We’d rather hear you play your violin, Fiona,’ proposed Tim.
The tattered violin case was opened with little enthusiasm. Her younger sister released the bow from its lid, then tightened the horsehair bow. Fiona played twenty eight bars of Dvorak’s Largo from the New World Symphony only making two errors, which showed more on her face than in the listening ears. Mild applause rewarded her efforts, but that was all that the audience was to hear.
‘OK. Now, let’s play Trivial Pursuit. I’ll be on Uncle Tim’s team. Laura you can go on Aunt Vera’s.’
‘All right,’ replied Laura, keen to be involved in her big sister’s planning.
Mutterings of …not being sure how to play…. were overcome by Laura. She had played the game twice since her mother had opened this Christmas present, though never winning. Her enthusiasm cautioned any other detractors. Soon chairs were positioned around a glass-topped, Ghanaian bubinga wood coffee table and the board lay open. Laura placed a cushion on the sapele wood Queen Mother Ashanti stool, and sat on it.
Fiona clarified how the game was played. Coloured wheels were lined up. No effort was made to give a choice of colour to the players. She distributed the yellow to Nana and Papa; the brown to Vera and Laura; the pink to Jocelyn; the orange to Miller and the green to herself and Tim. The game was underway.
Vera landed on History. ‘What blew up at Lakehurst, New Jersey on 6th May 1937?’ I asked.
Vera had no hesitation in replying. ‘The Hindenburg. It was an airship, Laura.’
Four on the dice took them to Geography. ‘Which British islands are the farthest north?’
‘That will be the Shetlands.’
‘Well done.’ A single spot on the dice took her to Entertainment.
‘What’s tattooed on Popeye’s arm?’
‘Oh…. I know…’ shouted Laura. ‘It’s …um…er….spinach.’
‘Sorry,’ I answered compassionately, ‘it’s an anchor. Good try though Laura.’
The game proceeded with coloured pies appearing within wheels and a welcome cup of tea was served by rotating non-playing members. The game was proving to be a success, though it was clear to see that categories of Entertainment and recent Sport questions were left to the minds of the younger generation.
Tim rolled the dice and glided his wheel anticlockwise.
‘No,’ shouted Laura ‘go the other way. Land on Geography. It’s a pie.’
‘I see.’ Tim realised his mistake. ‘Let’s hope it’s an easy one.’
‘Which two countries span the Brenner Pass?’
Tim looked towards the ceiling for a moment. ‘I’ve been there you know. I was there in 1920. It’s Italy and Austria.’
‘Correct. That proves that travel broadens the mind, Tim.’
Laura reached for the blue pie and placed it alongside the previously won brown Art & Literature pie. Their duo was doing well.
Then taking a deeper interest in his reply, Fiona asked why Uncle Tim was at the Pass. Tim recalled he had crossed the border from Austria into Italy, by going through the Brenner Pass whilst cycling with a friend on holiday but told Fiona, ‘If you want to hear a real adventure, ask Vera where she was when the First World War was declared!’
All eyes turned to Vera. She was very aware that she was the focus of the family’s sudden attention. ‘Well,….as a matter of fact…. I was in Germany. I was in Hamburg, staying with Aunty Fleur and her husband, when war was declared. I remember on 4th August 1914, feeling sorry for Fleur, because she was married to a German doctor. She had a remarkable life. Her story would make a good book some day. But at that time, they were more worried about me, especially as I was suddenly an enemy, facing capture.’
That evening in Berlin, the British Ambassador, Sir Edward Goschen, presented the ultimatum in a historic interview with the Chancellor. Hardly noticing the phrase that was to resound round the world, Goschen included it in his report of the interview. He concluded that, if for strategical reasons it was a matter of life or death for Germany to advance through Belgium, it was, so to speak, a matter of life or death for Britain to keep her solemn pact.
Britain’s declaration of war, coming immediately after Italy’s declaration, was seen as the last act of treason and infuriated the Germans. A large number surrounded the British Embassy. Some began stoning the windows. Britain became overnight, the most hated enemy. ‘Rassen Verrat’ – Race Treason was the favourite hate slogan heard that evening in the streets of Berlin.
‘So how did you escape?’ Fiona asked excitedly.
Laura sought the security of her mother’s lap. Vera began to recall the events of 77 years ago.
‘I suppose I featured early in Fleur’s story. ….Let me tell you both stories……where should I begin? ……. It was such a long time ago.’
She sat up, repositioned the cushion at her back, smiled at the girls and gave them the age-old preamble, ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ Both girls nodded silently. ‘Then I’ll begin.’
Vera was once again, a girl of eighteen.