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from the Guardian 14 September 2001

The sorrows of war
by David Mckie

A man called Bertie Felstead died at the end of July. He was 106 and the last survivor of the unofficial truce on Christmas Day 1915 when British and German troops laid down their arms and played football in No Mans Land. There cannot be many left today who were part of that war. Even if you enlisted at 17 in its final months you would now be almost almost 100. There aren’t even all that many about who served in the second world war. If you joined at 17 in 1945 you’d be 73 by now. Few under 60 have any deep recollections of wartime.

I wondered, when I read of his death, what the old Welch fusilier and veteran of the Somme made of the world he lived in during his final months. To read the tabloid front pages through those weeks of high summer you’d have thought that only two people on earth truly mattered. Not Bush and Putin, not Bush and Blair, not even Sharon and Arafat, but Paul and Helen, and what were the chances they’d "do it". Through late June and on through July, the Sun and Mirror splashed time and again on Big Brother. I’m bedding Bubble’s bird. Helen, Amma and Liz have fun in the tub. Big Brother bosses plot romp for Helen and Paul in Den. Helen is sex goddess
— she wants it all the time, says ex. Helen: my three lovers (she opens her heart to the Sun).

If it wasn’t Big Brother it was Survivor (I’m no harlot, says Charlotte the harlot) or EastEnders, or Corrie. Occasionally they would come up with a page one political story — the defeat of Portillo or Blunkett’s response to race riots — or a constitutional one (Fergie school booze shame) or something on labour relations (Madonna sacks her minder). But every story had a soap opera tinge: Chris Evans getting the sack, and Jeffrey Archer the clink.


The playwright John Osborne long ago forecast that, if present trends continued, Britain would one day sink giggling into the sea. As thousands who couldn’t be bothered to vote in the general election clamoured to choose between Brian, Helen and Paul, it seemed that point had been reached.

Well, the old, back to ancient Greece, have always deplored the failure of the young to be serious, and there is plenty of evidence, from A-level results to campaigns against globalisation, of how serious the young can be when they choose. And yet, with almost 60 years
gone since the defeat of Hitler, it seems to me that a great and unbridgeable gulf is fixed between those who lived through those wars and those who escaped them.

Those on one side will never be able to cpmprehend those on the other side. And that does not mean simply those who were called to fight in those wars. It means people who lived through the wartime bombing of London and other cities, who feared for their lives as well as the lives of those at the front; who thought from time to time of the phone call or telegram that would bring them the news they most dreaded — the 1940s equivalent of John Bright’s immortal image for his Birmingham constituents as their men died in the Crimea: "The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings."

Some say the world will never be quite the same after Tuesday’s events. That ought to be true. Terror this week has taken on a whole new dimension, giving strong grounds to expect that the methods employed are going to grow still more terrible. And though it all happened a long way away, we have to expect that it may one day happen here too. The terrible scenes from America could one day be from London or Manchester. What could happen to our children and grandchildren then hardly bears thinking about. The comparisons with Pearl Harbour underline the extent to which there has been, as the Guardian’s front page on Wednesday called it, a declaration of war - possibly, in effect, of a third world war, but this time without any way of knowing who we are fighting against.

There is no way of judging how far such thoughts have penetrated the national consciousness. "Not a word was spoken, not a mobile rang as every single passenger read of the tragedy," a Sutton reader wrote to yesterday’s Guardian of her journey to town. But on my midmorning train from Sutton that day, no one under about 45 was reading a newspaper. People were strolling the lunchtime streets as if one of the bloodiest days in history hadn’t changed anything much, as if New York and Washington were still someone else’s world.

We are still a long way from acquiring that kind of quiet, stoical, deep-down seriousness which war instilled in Bertie Feistead’s generation and in that of my parents. Perhaps it is best to hope that we never have to.

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