I had an email a day or so back from one of the ISIS pollsters. He said that his partner had died, and he no longer had it in him to do any survey stuff.
This was really bad news, because he was one of the best. He hit the streets running back in June, and had got 40 completed questionnaires before I’d even printed off my first one. He’d been an inspiration. Because I thought that if he could do it, then I could do it too.
I didn’t know what to write back and say. There have been very few deaths in my life that have hit me hard. The death of Cat was one. And a few others. Those deaths had consequences in my life. What do you say? I don’t know. In the end I expressed my condolences, and asked him to mail me the completed questionnaires he’s got. Because we need them.
And today I remembered Ron.
I met Ron one day in the River. He was sitting on a stool at the bar when I went up to buy myself another beer, and we got talking. I was about 55 back then, and he was about 75. I liked him instantly. And after that we talked a lot. It was back in the days before the smoking ban, when the bars were still friendly places. He came from Southend. Or Sarfend, as he called it.
Somebody told me one day that Ron was not well thought of. A few years earlier his wife had died, and he’d used to come to the pub, and burst into tears in front of everyone. And he did it over and over again. And this was, I was also told, very bad form. I was told that, when you go to a pub, you have to leave all that sort of baggage behind you. They were probably the same people who told me once that there were some things that shouldn’t be talked about in pubs. Politics was one of them. Religion was another. I can’t remember what the third one was. So WTF can you talk about in a pub? The weather? Maybe even that was off limits. Stiff upper lip, and all that. It reminded me of an article by Ian Hislop about how British stoicism was comparatively new, and it was the French who used to have all the sang-froid.
I never saw Ron burst into tears myself. He was one of the cheeriest people I met in the River. And I had a hard time even imagining him bursting into tears. But I didn’t think less of him for crying over his dead wife. I’m sure that I’d have wept too. After all, if I could shed tears over a dead cat, I’d have surely wept buckets over a dead wife.
Ron was usually good fun, but one day he got very serious. “You people,” he said to me, looking me right in the eye. “People of your age. They haven’t got any fight in them. They haven’t got what it takes. They’ll just let people walk all over them, trample all over them.”
I didn’t agree. I said that people of my age had never faced any terrible threat like his generation had. There wasn’t anything much that needed to be fought. So why should we need to have any fight in us? And I added that, if any such terrible threat emerged, we’d fight just as hard as his generation had.
Ron just shook his head.
“Nah,” he said, derisively. “They haven’t got it in ’em. They just haven’t got it in ’em.”
And if anyone would know something like that, it would have been Ron. Because Ron had been a submariner during the war. He’d operated the boat’s hydrophones, which is what are used to listen underwater.
Unlike most servicemen I’ve encountered, Ron talked very easily about his wartime experiences. He said that on his boat, the crew worshipped their captain. He’d led them through many dark and difficult experiences, and they had complete faith in him.
I think anyone who climbs into a little steel hull, and sinks hundreds of feet underwater inside it, is a hero. I think anyone who climbs into a airplane and flies one is a hero, particularly if it’s armed with machine guns. And I think anyone who drives a tank is a hero too. Because I don’t think I could do it. And maybe that’s what Ron could see.
I got talking to a Navy veteran of the Falklands conflict a while back, who’d been on one of the Royal Navy ships that had been hit by an Exocet missile. People who’d been standing 25 feet away from him had been killed. And I told him that I wouldn’t be brave enough to do something like that. And he replied that it wasn’t courage, but training. People had been trained to do a job, and they just did it. It was just what happened when you had a well-drilled crew. But I still think it takes courage to do that.
One day Ron’s submarine did something that no other submarine had ever done: it torpedoed a U-boat underwater. It was in the North Sea, just off Norway, towards the end of the war. They’d been tipped off about this particular U-boat, and they’d lain in wait for it for days, submerged most of the time. And then one day they heard the sound of its engines. It would have been Ron who heard those engines, of course. And because they were electric motors, they must have been very quiet. So I guess that what he heard was the sound of the propeller of the submerged U-boat, creeping northward underwater.
They followed it for a long time, both of them underwater, until the captain of Ron’s submarine managed to get into a position where he could fire some torpedoes. They fired about 6 torpedoes. And one of them hit the U-boat, and it sank. How on earth the captain managed to do that, I don’t know. How did they know how far below the surface the U-boat was?
“They were submariners on that U-boat, just like us,” Ron told me. “We knew what it was like for them. We felt for them. But we were at war.”
It’s a famous incident, not just because of the underwater torpedoes, but because the U-boat was actually carrying heavy water needed for atomic weapons to Japan, and a few scientists as well. And there have been fears in recent years that, as the sunken U-boat corrodes, it’ll start leaking out. So I think that they’ve been trying to bury it under concrete.
But as far as I was concerned, Ron was a hero. And yet, this heroic man had kept bursting into tears in the pub after his wife had died. Which isn’t exactly heroic, I suppose. It had brought strong disapproval.
Ron lived alone in a little village in Devon, and he didn’t have enough money to keep his home heating on all the time. And one day, in the depths of winter, when he hadn’t come to the pub like he usually did for a couple of days, people in the pub got worried, and went looking for him. That’s what pub communities used to be all about. They found him dead in his bed.
I think Ron could see what was coming much better than I could. I think he could see the gathering storm. After all, he’d lived through one. And perhaps he could see the signs that I couldn’t see. I was half asleep back then.
Because the Nazis are back. Only this time they’re not Germans. And they wear suits rather than uniforms. And they’re armed with lies rather than tanks. And they’re everywhere.
I still wonder whether Ron was right about my generation. If he was here now, I think I’d still disagree. I don’t think human nature changes much, or even at all, from generation to generation. I think everybody’s capable of fighting. But they’ll only do it when they have to.
But maybe Ron was right.