I think my favourite moment of the commemoration of D-Day last weekend was a brief piece of footage on the BBC showing William and Kate chatting with some of the veterans who had made the trip to Normandy for the occasion. The Duke of Cambridge appeared to be engaged in an earnest and I suspect technical discussion with one man. Kate was of course surrounded by a large group of old soldiers who looked very pleased indeed to be addressed by a nice young woman – whoever she might be. At that point I laughed, because while these are a group of old soldiers now, they were once young soldiers – teenagers and in their 20s at the time of the landings – and interest in young ladies never dies I think.
One of the nice things about last Friday was also that, albeit briefly, a lot of people recaptured the respect for the older generation that since my childhood at least feels that it has been slowing ebbing away.
It probably harks back a good decade or so before but as younger people we seem to see the old increasingly as nothing but a burden. We are all so busy these days – whether we have children or not – that finding time to spend with our elder relatives seems something increasingly hard to manage. Let us be honest. They just repeat the same old attitudes and stories don’t they? The same old stuff we have heard many times before. We are not really enticed to go and let them relive their lives when we can be somewhere else living ours for the first time.
And yet, I know this is my fault. All relationships are two way streets and if I see an older person as a bore and a burden it is probably because I have not thought about what are the best questions to ask. Someone who has lived for seventy years has a wealth of memories that they can tap into. I know that as a forty something. More interestingly they are memories of time that no longer exists in just the same way as there is no one you can ask about what it really was like to live in a Roman town. No, really. Going back to the D-Day events one of the statements repeated constantly was that this was likely to be the last time such an event happened because, in reality, soon there will be no one who lived through the second world war who is still with us, just as is pretty much already the case for the first world war. Much as they were terrible, these were two of the most significant events in European and World history – why would you not want to understand and appreciate these stories that soon will be lost to us? As I have blathered on before, and apologies for repeating myself, but late Nana, who passed away this year, had great stories of her youth during the war. I remember my Grandfather, who died many years ago now, showing me his photographs taken during the war and telling me, with tears in his eyes, about the time his gun turret – he was in the navy, mostly on Destroyers – was hit by a bomb killing all his mates. He was the only one left alive, with his eardrums blown but otherwise uninjured. In the next moment he was saying how beautiful the Norwegian fijords were, and how much he wanted to go back and see them again in peacetime (he was right, but he never did). And then he was showing me something he treasured, as I do now, which is the sailors headband from HMS Warspite*, certainly the most famous ship on which he served (and naughty Grandfather too as he certainly shouldn’t have had that). But honestly, he had so many stories, and apart from the fragments I remember they are now lost to us forever.
So I have a suggestion. Next time you have to see an elderly relative, think about what they lived through and ask them about their childhood, or how did they really meet your father, and what was he like as a young man, or ask them about their parents… Make them feel interested in what they have seen because I promise that they will say something that you didn’t know about them and will make you genuinely intrigued. Do it while you can. Like any bargain, they’re gone when they’re gone.
*By the way I was very happy to find out that the Warspite managed to sink herself off St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall on the way to be broken up at the end of her career. That was one lady that knew how to make an exit.