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Land fit for heroes

The View in Winter
Douglas Haig's Batman, aged eighty-five

The blinds slipping lower and lower upon an area of the past which has provided meaning and drama in one's life is a particularly bewildering aspect of senescence. Not to be able recall is in some instances not to be. Time has plucked from the brain not only its 'rooted sorrow' but also the great codification of one's essential experiences. The hardest facts under the pressure of recollection, they cave in, and no amount of trying can recover their true shape. 'You remember, don't you?' insists the kindly voice of family or friend, as it repeats the tales once told to them, priming the pump, trying to restart the old flow. But the old man does not remember. He cannot. He is alive and healthy-looking and eating his dinner, and will later ride off on his bike, but he'll no longer know what befell him here and there, then and, almost, now, than would a stranger. The years have not only 'razed out the written troubles of the brain' but much else beside. 'You remember, don't you?' prods the would-be helpful and oh, so patient voice, but still you do not. How can you? Trying to fit these things which one is being told back in one's skull is like attempting to do a mathematics in which the symbols themselves have become inexplicable.

The slide into brain disease is often so gradual and so protracted that the eventual eclipse of one's brightness is scarcely noticed. Though not so with Thomas. For him it is like being outside himself. The centre of his personality with all its dates and faces and happenings has disappeared, or practically so, and not even all these well-meant suggestions of what it contained can do much to bring it back. Every now and then something recognizable floats into his mind and then, surely, the rest must follow? But never. Thomas was nearly eighty before he began to forget on such a landslide scale. It hasn't left him foolish, simply remote - and remote to himself as much as to others. What often occurs, as Simone de Beauvoir says, is that 'every individual does begin to go downhill after a certain point' and that what we like to think of as either an admirable or tolerable old age really means 'that the elderly person has found a physical and mental balance, and not that his physical being, his memory and his possibilities of psychomotor adaptation are those of a young man'. And yet, as with Thomas, a senescent imbalance comprising a physical vitality amounting to adventurousness and even a kind of beauty, plus a head whose treasures have already been seized by- death, is also endurable. In fact the contrast between his easy, active physique at eighty-five and a brain which is not so much vacant as seemingly unmarked lends mystery to him.

He is a widower living alone in the country, in a little property which might have started out as one of those chickensmallholdings which could be acquired for about 140 during the late thirties. Margaret from the next bungalow, a young woman with husband and children, not so much 'does' for him but extends her life and family so that they include him. She comes in and out but disturbs nothing, makes his bed, brings food, cuts his hair, fills the oil-stove and chatters comfortingly. He is always 'Mr'. He meets her warmth sometimes with eagerness, occasionally with bemusement. He loves her children.

Margaret: 'He loves children - any child. A child on the bus to him is a wonder. He is mesmerized completely by a child until it is out of his sight. A child is a miracle to him. He has got some wonderful books of engravings of children. You feel as if you are in them. They are great treasures of his because he is captured by the beauty of children.'

She is touched by the opposite directions in which this octogenarian boy and her thirteen-year-old Kevin are travelling, one towards being grown-up and the other towards a bed in her bungalow and the grave. She actually enters Thomas's house as she might enter an adolescent's room, seeing plenty which doesn't suit her but disciplining herself not to meddle. She doesn't say what she thinks when, one moment, she sees that his cup is sometimes no more than a white glow to his speedwell-blue eyes which have cataracts and the next, he is away on his bicycle, jaunting through the village, a showy old jackanapes with hair and beard flying. Or when he weeds the garden and can't see groundsel from pinks, and makes holes and muddles like a baby. It is the liveliness of his agedness which pleases her. He has thickly-growing, strong hair like a youth and the lines are vanishing from his skin, which looks like varnished tissue.

The biggest thing in his life was the Great War. Margaret knows the story but he doesn't. Not any longer. He saw the war from a unique angle, being Douglas Haig's batman. With this fact in mind, he becomes tremendously interesting to both visitor and friend. Whilst the muddy line sagged, held, broke in its carnage a few miles back, Thomas was laying out razors and towels for the man who was in charge of it. At the end it was the Commander-in-Chief, not Passchendaele and the Somme, who left the indelible 1914-18 mark on Thomas's long life. So much so that he eventually changed his own name to Haig in tribute. 'I am very proud to think of the reason why you did this,' wrote the Field-Marshal's son to Thomas half a century later. 'I am interested to know that you served my father in the Montreuil, although that was a long time ago...'

'Lord Haig was your friend, wasn't he?' says Margaret, taking a chance and rushing the memory-door. Thomas smiles his 'big smile', as she calls it, but can add nothing, not even yes. The strange thing was that, after the Armistice, Haig's servant refused to collect his medals. He was twenty- seven in 1918. In 1975 he surprised Margaret by a great outburst:

'"I don't know, I wish I'd got my medals, I wish I'd seen them. I wish I'd got them - I do, I do! I wish I'd seen them. I should have seen them. I should have looked at my medals. I wish I'd got them just to look at ... only just to look at, you know." He said all that!'

Thomas fetches a huge volume of engravings of an old Royal Academy exhibition and remarks, 'There was a picture I was going to tell you about and it has completely gone. It's in here but it has gone.' He adds, 'If you've got anybody and you can call them a friend, that's important.'

Now read: George the Walking Wounded

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Tuesday 20 December 2005