10. Civilian life in Germany

Leaving Britain in 1978 I had the feeling that I was doing something that had consequences, but I pushed it aside, just as I pushed aside the bad experiences that I’d had that made my decision easier. I was a romantic fool who had so much to learn, spurned on by romantic tales of life in Europe and those I had the short time I’d been living in Germany. Life seemed to be so easy and free of the continuous banter that I hated so much as a soldier. I am a strange person in that respect, always looking for a straight conversation, getting confused if the conversation was made lighter by such banter, which I regarded as a loss of focus. Monika’s friends had become my friends and I was looking forward to seeing my wife. It seemed strange then, at 22 years old, to talk about “my wife” but I couldn’t wait for the ferry to arrive in Belgium.
However, after my return, I had a difficult start. First of all, living in a very small flat with my wife’s Grandmother, I was getting into all sorts of problems. Behaviour, which is quite normal for a young newlywed couple, became difficult living virtually on top of an eighty-year-old blind lady. Locking the bathroom door was a problem, fooling about was a problem, coming home late was a problem, coming home early was a problem. Therefore the first months in Germany were dictated by this experience. Secondly, the simple confrontation with everyday life using a foreign language made me very self-conscious. I felt I had to get everything absolutely right. As a soldier, I had experienced the occasional German who ridiculed my pronunciation of German words, and there is a particular problem with the construction of a sentence in German. If you get it wrong, Germans often don’t understand what you are saying. So I was intent on getting it right and just shopping in the local supermarket became a challenge. I reluctantly rose to the occasion but succeeded more and more, which in turn gave me confidence.
I found work with a subcontractor of the local Brewery delivering beer, but I was constantly being persuaded to make trips to Britain using the larger vehicles. I wanted to take the opportunity to graduate from school. The long-distance trips were, therefore, a problem, as were the delivery jobs, which often had me working from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening and gave me the added stress of keeping my co-driver, who was always drunk, in the vehicle. He would leave me to unload and, rather than arguing, I got on with it. Afterwards, I would find him downing a glass of beer, obviously not his first, any time of the day. I needed him to show me around the place, but that became increasingly difficult, the more he drank. One day he told me we could take a short cut and guided me into a cul-de-sac, where the signpost was covered by branches of a tree. It took us two hours to get back out, reversing with a trailer. My means of transport to and from work was a bicycle. After cycling across town to get home after such a day, and there were many, I was in no state to do anything more and had to get up the next day early and bright.
We moved into our own flat during that time, but it wasn’t any closer to my workplace, but closer to Monika’s parents. We used a delivery lorry to travel all over the town at the weekend, collecting used furniture, and man-handling it through the window from the street. It was old and worn, but it was ours. The flat was situated across from the main coal-mine in Dortmund, and we could see mountains of coke across the road from our bedroom. The bedroom was on the main road, and lorries carrying cinders drove back and forth from the early hours in the morning, including Saturdays. On the first day of the weekend, we would often be woken by the vibrations of these trucks. It was the dirty part of Dortmund and the cinders left thick dust on everything if you left the window open. The whole place smelled of coal and coke as well.
I was determined to get back to school and learn a trade, which had been suggested to me by Monika’s stepfather. I started learning German by reading and translating a news magazine, Der Spiegel, which was also quite left-orientated. There were many topics written with a perspective that I wasn’t used to, but which interested me. Fortunately, a mixed group of students moved into the flat above and made it into a shared apartment. These young people found it amusing to speak with a young Englishman who was learning the language and we discussed everything I had been reading. I was able to enjoy the company of Monika’s friends, but I relished the nightly discussions with these young people. They helped me better my German like no-one else had, although Monika remains the main influence over time.
After a year and a serious accident that forced my boss to write off a truck, I changed my job. I then drove a dump truck to construction sites and transported the excavators with a trailer. Not long after starting work, I fell over on to my backside and the back of my trousers were suddenly filled with bloody pus. After consulting the doctor, it turned out to be a fistula at the coccyx, or tail-bone, which had to be operated on. I was lucky that my boss didn’t sack me, but he felt it could have been an accident at work, and so he put up with it. His stepsons complained that he was treating me better than others, but he took me back after six weeks of sick leave. I used the time to read Erich Fromm’s “Haben oder Sein” (To have or to be) and translate this into English. He too was Marxist orientated but he interested me because of his use of biblical and Buddhist examples to illustrate his thesis. I bought myself a Bible and a book on Buddhism.
After I recovered, I took the opportunity to go to evening school and take the so-called 2nd educational path. Evening school in Unna was an awakening experience. The participants were mostly mid-twenties like me and had, for whatever reason, not passed the necessary exams or achieved the necessary marks. We didn’t need any time to get to know each other and often met in cafes between classes on Saturdays. Very often I experienced being interesting just because I was an Englishman, it was no different here. I noticed how characteristics associated with my country were applied to me, which I didn’t consider typical. In fact, I had left the UK because I wasn’t really the “typical” Englishman if there is one outside of the imagination. At evening school I was surprisingly successful. German and history were of particular interest to me, but also my math teacher, Mrs Hofmann, showed me that I was not incapable, although I had been unable to grasp math in England. This new chance at education at 25 was completely different from my experience of school as a child. I was very much engaged in the classes, and my German teacher, Herr Wemhöner, seemed intent on getting me through to higher education.
After passing my exams with flying colours, much better than expected, I wanted to become a geriatric nurse, but my wife had become pregnant and we decided that I had to put these plans on ice. There was no other way as I would not have earned enough money to care for my wife and child whilst training so I looked for another job. My wife and I decided that she should go back to work after the birth, to begin with, and I would stay at home for a while since she earned more than I, and her job was stable. That meant I would have to talk to my employer about how I was to become unemployed. As it happens, he was already talking about reducing the number of drivers and so I suggested he sack me, instead of another young man who had just married. He wasn’t happy, nor were his son’s, who hadn’t been happy about my sick leave so early on, but he consented.
When our son announced his birth, Monika’s amniotic sac burst and we rushed to the hospital. We were shown into the delivery ward and Monika was prepared for the birth procedure. Unfortunately, our son wasn’t prepared to arrive and so we were left waiting for some time. Monika asked me to read something to her, but the only book I had picked up on the way out was a German edition of “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. After her initial disappointment, I started to read the story, but as our son still wasn’t ready, it began to bore her and we soon found the situation laughable. We managed to pass the time until the medical staff decided to “persuade” the child to arrive. The drama of the birth was then prolonged when the doctor asked me to leave, as he had to use forceps to pull the child out. My wife and I protested about me having to leave, also the nurses, but I found myself outside the birth room, frustrated because I wanted to be there when our son was born. Suddenly the door opened and I was ushered in “Hurry, hurry!” Our son’s cranium was just visible and he slithered out as I arrived. The standard slap opened his lungs and we thought everything was okay. The doctor thought otherwise.
The hushed conversation, probably intended to prevent us from getting worried, only amplified the seriousness of the situation. Then all was fine, the doctor came to us with a smile and we were told not to worry. Monika had a spotty face from the capillaries that had burst when she was pressing, and she was tired. We arranged to meet up later that day after we had some sleep and I had registered the birth. I shuffled off, quite exhausted by the experience, disappointed still that I hadn’t been there all the time, especially as I had felt Monika’s need for me to be there. I arrived home and fell asleep almost immediately.
Later that day, I arrived at the registry office and was told in all seriousness, that the name Marc-Ian, which we had chosen for our son, was considered to be “unusual” and I should consider the fact that he would carry this name all his life. I replied, “It’s not as though I want to call him Pumuckl or something like that!” The very conservative looking lady gave me an uncertain look and finally stamped everything and gave me the papers.
When I arrived at the hospital, I met my wife in a terrible state on the stairs to the ward. Between the tears, she told me that our son had hydrocephalus, apparently about one to two per 1,000 newborns have this condition, which is an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid, and associated with several serious illnesses. I didn’t really know what to say. During the pregnancy, I had been reading all sorts of literature about being parents, including a book on what to do if your child is disabled in any way. This book had obviously caused a discussion with Monika, who was concerned about me reading on such a subject. Now it came all rushing to my mind and I felt guilty somehow.
We had several fraught days at the incubator, and Monika was allowed to go home but they still kept our little treasure in the hospital. On one occasion the nurse made a point of saying that our son was a fighter, he had already disconnected himself a couple of times. Finally, the swelling subsided and we were allowed to take him home. However, we were told that we would have to be very careful because the neck wasn’t strong enough to carry the head, and we would probably have to go to physiotherapy with him. Another problem was that he didn’t drink so well, and was very thin. This continued to cause us problems at home.

Meine Beichte – Tolstoy

„Ich verstand (1), dass die Position, die Schopenhauer, Salomo und ich mit all unserer Weisheit einnahmen, eine törichte war: Wir verstehen, dass das Leben ein Übel ist, und doch leben wir. Das ist eindeutig töricht, denn wenn das Leben töricht ist, und ich sorge mich so sehr um die Vernunft, sollte das Leben ein Ende haben, und dann gäbe es niemanden, der es leugnet. (2) Ich verstand, dass sich alle unsere Argumente in einem verzauberten Kreis drehten, wie ein Zahnrad, dessen Zähne sich nicht mehr in einem anderen verfangen. So sehr und so gut wir auch denken, wir bekommen keine Antwort auf unsere Frage; sie wird immer 0 = 0 sein, und folglich ist unsere Methode wahrscheinlich falsch. (3) Ich begann zu verstehen, dass in den Antworten des Glaubens die tiefste Quelle menschlicher Weisheit zu finden war, dass ich kein vernünftiges Recht hatte, sie abzulehnen, und dass sie allein das Problem des Lebens löste.“
„Wenn es nicht so schrecklich wäre, wäre es lächerlich, an den Stolz und das Selbstvertrauen zu denken, mit dem wir wie Kinder unsere Uhren herausziehen, die Feder wegnehmen, sie zum Spielen nutzen und dann erstaunt sind, dass sie die Zeit nicht mehr halten werden.“
Leo Tolstoi, Meine Beichte, IX

Ich finde diese Geständnisse sehr hilfreich in der Situation, in der ich mich befinde. Seit langem gehe ich die gleichen Fragen durch, die Tolstoi in seine „Beichte“ beschreibt, wenn auch ohne die Gedanken an Selbstmord, die ihn in die Enge trieben. Glücklicherweise kam mir das nicht in den Sinn, auch wenn das Leben manchmal so sinnlos erschien, aber insbesondere wenn ich meine Familie sah und meine Verantwortung erkannte. Ich fühle mich jedoch gequält und fürchte die Isolation, während ich gleichzeitig viele Dinge tue, um meine Isolation zu verursachen.

Ich kam auch zu der Erkenntnis, dass unsere Existenz eine Ursache hat, wie Tolstoi schreibt. Diese „Kodierung des Lebens“ in das Chaos des Universums erregte mich kurzzeitig, nur um in der gleichen Weise nachzulassen, wie Tolstoi seine Erfahrung beschreibt. Ein Aspekt, den er jedoch entdeckte und der oft unbemerkt bleibt, ist die Tatsache, dass der „Geist“ Menschen zusammenbringt und unter ihnen aktiv ist. In der intellektuellen Diskussion tritt sie jedoch selten auf, wenn sie überhaupt vorhanden ist. Mit anderen Worten, je mehr wir diskutieren (lateinisch discussus: auseinanderbrechen, erschüttern, zerstreuen), desto unwahrscheinlicher ist es, dass der Geist effektiv sein kann.

Dieses Verständnis veranlasste Tolstoi, auf seinen sozialen Status zu verzichten und die Bauern in seiner Gegend zu studieren, die kürzlich aus dem Sklavenstatus genommen worden waren. Ihre Bedingungen waren nicht gut, aber ihr Glaube beeindruckte Tolstoi. Es hat mich auch beeindruckt und passt gut zu meinem erworbenen Verständnis, dass, wenn sich die Gemeinschaften auf das Gute und Gesunde konzentrieren, mehr Gutes geschieht. Auch das Gegenteil ist der Fall: Wer sich auf das Böse konzentriert und was ungesund ist, erlebt auch das Böse. Die Tatsache, dass das Christentum (manchmal drastische) archetypische Symbole und Metaphern verwendet, um die Darstellung dieser Realität zu beleben, zeigt uns nur, wie die Menschen in der Vergangenheit gelehrt wurden. Es nimmt der Wahrheit der Geschichten nichts weg.

Das Problem beginnt für mich, wie für Tolstoi, wenn man versucht, die Lehre nach der Vernunft zu beurteilen. Die Lehre ist sehr oft das, was die verschiedenen Kirchen trennt, und es hilft nicht, dass sie sich auf zentrale Themen des Evangeliums einigen. Das sollte meiner Meinung nach das Ziel sein, stattdessen sind die verschiedenen Kirchen wegen der Unterschiede in der Lehre in den Krieg gezogen. Tolstoi erlebte den Konflikt in Russland. Es gab unter anderem auch den Dreißigjährigen Krieg in Mitteleuropa, der auch deutlich machte, dass es bei diesen Konflikten um Machtkonstellationen und nicht um zentrale Lehren aus den Evangelien ging. Wie kann man das Gebot der Nächstenliebe, auch des eigenen Feindes, aufrechterhalten und wegen der Unterschiede in der Lehre trotzdem in den Krieg ziehen?

Ich denke, wir müssen akzeptieren, dass die Geschichten des Evangeliums, die so viel Wahrheit in sich tragen, nicht den Test der akademischen Zerlegung bestehen, sondern direkt zu dem Teil in uns sprechen, der erkennt, was dem Leben entspricht. Die Inspiration, die zu einem Fokus auf das Wahre, Gesunde und Gute führt, trifft jeden wahren Zuhörer im Herzen und wird sofort verstanden. Was oft fehlt, ist die Bereitschaft oder Fähigkeit, entsprechend zu handeln. Gott ist das, was zwischen den Menschen passiert, wenn die Liebe geteilt wird.

Confessions by Tolstoy

“I understood (1) that the position assumed by Schopenhauer, Solomon, and myself, with all our wisdom, was a foolish one: we understand that life is an evil, and yet we live. This clearly is foolish, because if life is foolish, and I care so much for reason, life should be put an end to, and then there would be no one to deny it. (2) I understood that all our arguments turned in a charmed circle, like a cogwheel, the teeth of which no longer catch in another. However much and however well we reason, we get no answer to our question; it will always be 0 = 0, and consequently our method is probably wrong. (3) I began to understand that in the answers given by faith was to be found the deepest source of human wisdom, that I had no reasonable right to reject them, and that they alone solved the problem of life.”

“If it were not so terrible, it would be laughable to think of the pride and self-confidence with which we, like children, pull out our watches, take away the spring, make a plaything of them, and are then astonished that they will no longer keep time.”

Leo Tolstoy, My Confessions, IX

I find these confessions very helpful in the situation I find myself in. For a long time I have been going through the same questions that Tolstoy describes in his „confessions“, albeit without the thoughts of suicide that cornered him. Fortunately, that didn’t occur to me, even though life sometimes seemed so pointless, but especially when I saw my family I recognized my responsibility. However, I do feel tormented and fear the isolation whilst at the same time doing many things to cause my isolation.

I also came to the realization that our existence has a cause, as Tolstoy writes. This „coding of life“ into the chaos of the universe briefly excited me, only to subside in the same way as Tolstoy describes his experience. One aspect he discovered, however, and which often goes unnoticed, is the fact that the „spirit“ brings people together and is active among them. In intellectual discussion, however, it rarely occurs if it is present at all. In other words, the more we discuss (Latin discussus: to break apart, shaken, scattered), the less likely it is that the mind can be effective.

This understanding led Tolstoy to renounce his social status and to study the farmers in his area who had recently been taken out of slave status. Their conditions were not good, but their faith impressed Tolstoy. It also impressed me and fits well with my acquired understanding that when communities focus on good and healthy, more good happens. The opposite is also the case: whoever focuses on evil and that which is unhealthy, also experiences evil. The fact that Christianity uses (sometimes drastic) archetypal symbols and metaphors to enliven the representation of this reality only shows us how people were taught in the past. It takes nothing away from the truth of the stories.

The problem begins for me, as for Tolstoy, when one tries to judge the doctrine by reason. Teaching is very often what separates the different churches, and it does not help that they agree on central themes of the Gospel. This, in my opinion, should be the goal, instead the different churches have gone to war because of the differences in doctrine. Tolstoy experienced the conflict in Russia. There was also, among other conflicts, the Thirty Years‘ War in Central Europe, which also made it clear that these conflicts were about power constellations and not about central teachings from the Gospels. How can one upkeep the command to love your neighbour, even one’s own enemy, and still go to war because of doctrinal differences?

I think we must accept that the stories of the Gospel, which carry so much truth in them, do not stand the test of academic decomposition, but speak directly to the part within us that recognizes what corresponds to life. The inspiration that leads to a focus on what is true, healthy and good, hits every true listener in the heart and is immediately understood. What is often lacking is the willingness or ability to act accordingly. God is what happens between people when love is shared.

6. Barnstaple

When we arrived in Devon again, we moved into Pilton Abbey in Barnstaple, a huge old building that had a kitchen with a massive breakfast table in the adjoining room as well as large rooms with big burgundy drapes. The walls and the window ledges inside were about three feet deep, and the kitchen had old-fashioned lead window panes with criss-cross patterns. Outside a Robin often turned up for the crumbs we threw out. I also remember Colin and I once polishing the floor with dusters tied to our feet and hands and sliding about – rather ineffectively I assume. In a room that seemed to be an endless expanse to us children, with an old Christian painting above the fireplace, we had our beds in a corner. This large painting depicted the death of the martyrs in the Roman arena. At night I had the feeling that the curtains were bending threateningly over us and that the moon brightened the death scene, making it appear life-size. I was finally moved to a smaller room with no paintings on the walls, where I dreamt less of such cruel scenes.

The surrounding estate was substantial as well and had tennis courts that hadn’t been used for a while, an orchard and lots of gooseberry bushes. I discovered all sorts of underground chambers and climbed into or up everything I could find, especially after we discovered a tree den in the large oak tree opposite the house, complete with metal rungs hammered into the tree. My brother, Colin, always imitating me, got stuck in a large poplar tree, and froze after looking down. I had to climb up to him and help him come down again whilst my father looked on. He said the tree wouldn’t take his weight, and besides, it was my fault for encouraging him. Once we played on a huge red clay vase full of earth in the garden, but it tipped over and broke into many pieces. I was in trouble for that as well, since the vase had fallen onto Colin and knocked the wind out of him. Mum thought he was dead at first and was panic-stricken. We got into trouble for going down into the mysterious and dark cellar that was full of spider-webs. We children didn’t go down without some lights on, because we couldn’t find our way back without crashing into a wall or pulling spiderwebs onto oneself. It wasn’t hard to catch someone down there and turn the lights off, but it was terrible to be on the receiving end. The people on the other side of the house had a huge winding stairway and many more rooms, which gave us an idea of how big the whole house was.

Whilst in the abbey I had started to go to a small primary school in Pilton next to the church, which was just across the road that wound through the buildings. My skin colour was darker than usual when we arrived, but it faded quickly. A young girl of colour felt an affinity for me, and I sat next to her. She was disappointed, however, when it turned out that my skin colour was not permanent. At that time I also started to read much more. Just the usual children’s books about a schoolboy named Jeremy, but it revived my imagination. During this time I had to do my „Eleven-Plus“ test and the result meant that I was not accepted into grammar school, which was apparently the goal. Instead, I had to go to Secondary School, which was quite a lot further than primary school, but on the way there I would experience many different adventures, most of them in my mind.

It wasn’t long before we moved into a bungalow a few miles away. I don’t know if these events had anything to do with it, but my mother was relieved. However, one of my school friends was the pastor’s son, Guy. He had resources I didn’t have and got me into all sorts of nonsense. Once we made a bomb that was heard all over the town and Guy and I were thrown off our feet when it exploded. The tree we wanted to blow up did not fall – thank God we had no knowledge of explosives! It would have buried us under it. But there were also all kinds of places to experience adventures, including haystacks, apple orchards, ruins and old buildings. We even managed to be chased by a herd of cows, which, in reality, they were being called for milking. We also used our bikes to imitate the American Evil Knievel, whose stunts were on TV at the time. It led to me taking my bike home in two parts and my parents telling me that I had to walk to school from then on.

The bungalow was set behind a wall and a number of Hortensia bushes decorated the entrance. Out the back, behind a glasshouse, which was built on to the house, there was a small lawn, a vegetable garden and behind the shed at the bottom an orchard. The orchard was “off-bounds”, but the apples didn’t taste good anyway. Colin and I often played on the lawn with plastic soldiers and a fort that my father had made that had quite some detail. He had spent hours building it and we were elated when we had it given to us one Christmas. Later on, he was devastated when he found that in our games had started trying to create “realistic” scenes and we had set fire to the fort. I think that seeing how my father was affected by the damage I had done was the first experience of empathy, and I realised how much I had hurt him. I only then saw what effort he had put in to provide for us, and what it had meant to him. For him it was wanton vandalism, for us it was in one way the beginning of consumerism – when it’s broken you get a new one. We underestimated the emotional value this piece of artistry had for him.

During our time in Barnstaple, it must have been before or during 1965, I was sent to a Christian Endeavour camp in the south of Wales in Pembrokeshire. We crossed the Bristol Channel from Ilfracombe to Mumbles, near Swansea, and took the bus to a place near Fishguard. It was quite a fun time of raft building and playing, but also of reading the Bible. I had problems at that time and was under observation because I was very often a brooding loner. I have good memories of that time, even if I had difficulties. The greatest moment of all was on my way home. We had gathered at the Mumbles Pier and the sky was already dark when we boarded the small ferry. The children and staff looked worried as we boarded, and it wasn’t long before the sky turned dark brown and the lightning brightened the sky. The boat was hurled back and forth between the waves and I could hardly tell the difference between water and sky. Almost the whole group was hanging sick over the railing. When I entered the small deck where the drinks had been served, I noticed that I was not feeling so well inside. So I took shelter in the stairs leading to the engine room, but the rain and seawater sprayed over the deck and everyone got wet. At a moment when the sky flashed with lightning, everything seemed to stop for a moment, and the scene remained in my memory as if it would tell me something that words could not say. Having read the Bible in Fishguard during the week, I connected this experience with God even though I couldn’t explain myself.

When we reached the pier in Ilfracombe, my father was waiting for me among other parents who were very worried at the sight of their seasick children. I was full of the experience and as we got into the car I excitedly told him what had happened. My father was even calmer than usual, although he asked me how I felt. I assured him that I was well and he told me that my brother Colin had fallen off his bike while I was away and was in the hospital. Somehow I linked this information to an accusation, as if it were my fault, be it because I wasn’t there, be it because I had given him the idea to go down the hill at breakneck speed. He was unlucky that his tire burst and he was thrown off his bike. He suffered a concussion and a nasty cut on his chin, which is still visible today as a scar, along with many abrasions. This was in addition to the injuries he had already sustained when he climbed trees with me and fell. He had hit almost every big branch on the way down and injured his back. I had been guilty then, too, so I felt guilty again because of his new injuries.

Once again I had a story to tell people, this time there were more people who would believe me. The idea of an epiphany subsided with time and new imaginations were colouring parts of the story in as I saw fit. Moving on to Secondary school gave me more to include in my stories because we had a history teacher who could draw incredible sketches of medieval life and an English teacher, Mr. Ford, who encouraged us to put the literature we read into practice in the classroom and on stage. He was part of the local theatre association and we went to a Greek comedy by the Classical comedic playwright Aristophanes, in which he played Mars. At school, we worked on school plays, talking about how, for example, Aristophanes used his comedies to dramatise many politicised ideas and draw attention to specific individuals in society. I don’t think we all realised how important this was, but these details made the play come to life. We also played out spontaneous choreographies to classical music. With the latter, we even took part in a drama competition that took place at colleges around Devon. But not everything was successful. I was so taken in by this activity that I was often envious of those who could play roles on the stage, whereas I was put on the wind machine. I was too emotional to be able to concentrate on my lines and got carried away. I was also not recommended for the school choir because, as the teacher told me carefully, I was „a solo singer and not suitable for a choir“.

I took this experience with me, however, and my father was concerned at one stage that his son was being turned into an effeminate dancer. Of course, it soon wore off and I became enthralled by the next new discovery, but the importance of writing and conveying thoughts, and the ability to hint at things without blurting them out, became a real challenge for me. I started writing and filling up notebooks with plagiarised versions of what I had heard or seen somewhere, and tried to find ways of expressing what I struggled to convey verbally. It was then that puberty was taking place and I struggled with feelings that my parents didn’t want to talk about. Wet dreams and uncontrolled emotional outbursts left me a very confused boy. At this stage, my mother suddenly stopped bathing me with my brothers and I had to take a bath on my own. I heard from school mates that they knew all about sex and even the first accounts of sexual encounters were being passed about. I smiled or laughed as though I knew what they meant, but I didn’t. All I knew was that I had another problem that I couldn’t deal with. My fathers “Men’s magazines” suddenly left something stirring in my groin, which hadn’t had that effect before, so I told stories like those I had read to other boys in an attempt to belong to the crowd. I found that I had the knack of telling stories and went on to tell more of them. Unfortunately, my stories became my reality and I had difficulty for a while to differentiate between fact and fiction. Sometimes they were extremely childish, but I relished the interest I awoke.

Belonging to the crowd didn’t last long. My father had been growing deaf and had attempted to get compensation on leaving the Army, but it couldn’t be proved that his deafness had been caused by anything he had experienced in the service. I can imagine that this was a serious issue for him since his plans to serve 22 years and leave with a pension had been thwarted. In the end, it frustrated him and after we had moved to Swindon once again, and he stayed in Devon to clear up, hand over the quarter and leave the service. The marital struggles returned again after my mother found out that my father had been seeing a younger woman, who had been a neighbour and a friend of hers, during the weeks he was alone in Devon. He told me nothing had happened, but that he had just run across her and spent some time with her. My mother was furious, and it became quite clear to the rest of the family that this issue was being blown out of context. I just saw it as another cause of confusion, and I discovered that I had become quite efficient at saying good-bye to people, although making new friends was another thing altogether.


Mein Beruf als Altenpfleger wurde stark von Sterbenden geprägt. Man entwickelt ein Verfahren, um den Sterbeprozess würdig ablaufen zu lassen; man sucht Menschen, die da sein können, sei es aus der Familie oder vom Personal. Auch der Abschied nach dem Tod sollte würdig sein. Der Verstorbene hat ein Leben geführt, wie wir alle, mit all seinen unterschiedlichen Irrtümern und Verwirrungen. Ob die Person ein gutes Leben hatte oder nicht, können wir nicht beurteilen. Jeder Sterbende muss das für sich selbst oder mit einem Pastor oder einer anderen Person entscheiden. Eine professionelle Pflege kann nur die Grundvoraussetzungen schaffen und einige Stunden sitzen, bevor die anderen Bewohner oder Patienten rufen und betreut werden müssen.

Als Leiter eines Altenheims war es mir immer wichtig, eine aktive Rolle zu spielen, damit im Haus verstanden wurde, was im Sterbeprozess wichtig ist. Manchmal war es schwierig, wenn die Mitarbeiter auf ihre Arbeitsbelastung hinwiesen und sich beschwerten, dass sie diesen wichtigen Service für die Bewohner nicht erbringen konnten. Selten gab es Mitarbeiter, die kein Mitgefühl mit älteren Menschen oder Sterbenden zu haben schienen. Für sie musste die Tür geschlossen werden. Es gab auch Verwandte, die versuchten, das Verfahren nach dem Tod objektiv zu diskutieren, obwohl der sterbende Bewohner lieber seine Hand gehalten hätte oder die Stimme seiner Verwandten gehört hätte.

Wie man sich auf solche Situationen vorbereitet, war ein Thema, das ich oft mit den Mitarbeitern besprach. Ich habe festgestellt, dass es möglich ist, durch einen Plan das Engagement bei den Mitarbeitern zu wecken. Oft genug waren die engagierten Mitarbeiter enttäuscht, weil andere Mitarbeiter sich nicht an den Plan hielten oder weil Verwandte alle Vereinbarungen frustrierten. Aber wenn es funktionierte, war die Erfahrung anders, und alle waren glücklich. Ehrfurcht vor den Sterbenden zu lehren ist nicht so einfach, aber darum geht es doch. Man braucht Zeit für die Vorbereitung und Zeit während des Prozesses. Man findet keine Zeit, wenn es keine Ehrfurcht vor den Sterbenden gibt.

In meiner letzten Anstellung gab es keine Zeit und damit nicht genug Ehrfurcht vor den Sterbenden. Ich bin selbst ein wenig gestorben, jedes Mal, wenn ich hörte, wie der Tod eines Bewohners geschehen war, oder wie der Gedenkdienst durchgeführt wurde. Es gab einige Mitarbeiter, die versuchten, das Engagement aufrechtzuerhalten, aber für viele blieb keine Zeit. Ich hatte das Gefühl, dass ich versagt hatte, weil mich die kaufmännischen Aufgaben so sehr beschäftigt hatten und ich nicht die Zeit fand, diesen wichtigen Bereich aktiv mitzugestalten.

Ich denke, viele Menschen erwarten, dass die Bewohner eines Altenheims in einer hospizähnlichen Situation sterben, aber noch immer werden zu viele zum Sterben ins Krankenhaus gebracht, weil das Personal keine Unterstützung erhält. Nicht zuletzt deshalb, weil die Altenpflege zu einem profitablen Geschäft geworden ist.

Terminal Care

My profession as a nurse for the elderly was very much influenced by dying people. One develops a procedure to let the process run in a dignified manner; one looks for people who can be there, whether from the family or from the staff. The farewell after death should also be dignified. The deceased person has led a life, like all of us, with all its varying mistakes and confusions. Whether the person had a good life or not, we can’t judge. Every dying person has to decide that for himself or with a pastor or some other person. Professional care can only provide the basic conditions and sit for a few hours before the other residents or patients call and have to be cared for.

As a manager of an old people’s home, it was always important for me to play an active role so that there was an understanding in the house of what is important during the process of dying. Sometimes it was difficult when employees pointed out their workload and complained that they could not provide this important service to the resident. Rarely, but often present, there were employees who seemed to have no empathy with the elderly or the dying. For them, the door had to be closed. There were also relatives who tried to discuss objectively the procedure after death, although dying resident would rather have had their hand held, or hear the voice of their relatives.

How to prepare such situations was a topic I often discussed with staff. I noticed that it is possible to arouse commitment with the staff by making a plan. Often enough, the committed employees were disappointed because other employees did not stick to the plan or because relatives frustrated all arrangements. But if it worked, the experience was different, and everyone was happy. Teaching reverence for the dying is not so easy, but that’s what it’s all about. You need time for preparation and time during the process. You don’t find time when there is no reverence for the dying.

In my last employment there was no time, and therefore no reverence for the dying. I died a little bit each time I heard how the death of a resident had happened, or how the memory-service was conducted. There were some employees who tried to keep up the commitment, but for many, there was no time. I had the feeling that I had failed because the commercial tasks had occupied me so much and I didn’t find the time to actively help shape this important area.

I think many people expect residents of an old people’s home to die in a hospice-like situation, but too many are still being delivered to the hospital to die because the staff does not receive support. Part of the reason is that nursing care for the elderly has become a profitable business. Another reason is that idealists like me tend to run themselves into the ground.

Letting yourself go

In the tram last night, I experienced two drunken young men who felt that their exchange about the weather should be heard by all. Because one of them was dressed in a thin T-shirt and complained about the cold, their language was accordingly crude and loud. This was the reason why the other passengers felt that the young men were threatening. Glances were exchanged that conveyed this.

I had to think about how quickly people attract attention by falling out of social norms. They crash and find themselves outside of what can be accepted. These two young men were conspicuous in the evening, during the day it would probably have been less tolerated. This means that there is a norm that we must all adhere to, at least within certain limits.

How are such standards established and maintained? Is it a tacit suggestion, or are they demonstrated, highlighted and recommended? It is widely expected that children will learn in the course of their upbringing what is acceptable and what is not. If not, the school tries to set the norm but if the school fails, the ability to get a job and keeping it, is a sign of whether one has learned the lesson or not.

But is this schooling enough, or are the many that become conspicuous a sign that something is missing? Could it be that society has become a little blue-eyed and convinced that order means normality? I have noticed over the years that order, as it is widely understood, is by no means a sign of normality. On the contrary, we experience how everything disintegrates if it is not cultivated. If one does not work for order, the environment becomes hostile and threatening to our existence. A constant struggle is needed to ensure that nothing bad happens.

In the past, people used flags and banners to illustrate their contribution to order. Clubs have proudly presented their work and there have been parades marching in rank and file, the epitome of order. But we have also noticed that there is also a “too much”. Just as chaos can become too much, there can also be too much order, and life becomes too narrow and we feel we could suffocate. We need a balance between order and chaos, a middle way to keep everything in balance.

Ancient cultures have kept the balance high, Yin and Yang for example, and in everything where life succeeds they found this balance. I have the feeling that we have not achieved this kind of order, to be in balance. Instead, there is either too much or too little, which harms society. Ultimately, everything ends in chaos if the balance cannot be maintained. But how can we achieve it? How can we live it consciously; how can we represent it for our children, and for ourselves?

Wouldn’t political parties have to show how they intend to keep society in balance? Instead, one often has the feeling that politics is either one-sided left or right. Even when parties claim to want to occupy the centre, there is no demonstration of how their policies restore balance. Is there a party or group that can successfully demonstrate this?

Sich gehen lassen

In der Straßenbahn gestern Abend erlebte ich zwei betrunkene junge Männer, die das Gefühl hatten, dass ihr Austausch über das Wetter von allen gehört werden sollte. Da einer von ihnen in ein dünnes T-Shirt gekleidet war und sich über die Kälte beschwerte, war ihre Sprache entsprechend grob und laut. Das war der Grund, warum die anderen Passagiere das Gefühl hatten, dass die jungen Männer bedrohlich waren. Es wurden Blicke ausgetauscht, die dies vermittelten.

Ich musste darüber nachdenken, wie schnell Menschen Aufmerksamkeit erregen, indem sie aus sozialen Normen herausfallen. Sie stürzen ab und befinden sich außerhalb dessen, was akzeptiert werden kann. Diese beiden jungen Männer waren am Abend auffällig, tagsüber wäre es wahrscheinlich weniger toleriert worden. Das bedeutet, dass es eine Norm gibt, an die wir uns alle halten müssen, zumindest innerhalb bestimmter Grenzen.

Wie werden solche Normen festgelegt und aufrechterhalten? Ist es ein stillschweigender Vorschlag, oder werden sie demonstriert, hervorgehoben und empfohlen? Es wird allgemein erwartet, dass Kinder im Laufe ihrer Erziehung lernen, was akzeptabel ist und was nicht. Wenn nicht, versucht die Schule, die Norm festzulegen, aber wenn die Schule scheitert, ist die Fähigkeit, einen Job zu bekommen und ihn zu behalten, ein Zeichen dafür, ob man die Lektion gelernt hat oder nicht.

Aber reicht diese Erziehung aus, oder sind die vielen, die auffällig werden, ein Zeichen dafür, dass etwas fehlt? Könnte es sein, dass die Gesellschaft ein wenig blauäugig geworden ist und überzeugt, dass Ordnung Normalität bedeutet? Ich habe im Laufe der Jahre festgestellt, dass Ordnung, wie sie allgemein verstanden wird, keineswegs eine Norm ist. Im Gegenteil, wir erleben, wie alles zerfällt, wenn es nicht kultiviert wird. Wenn man nicht für die Ordnung arbeitet, wird die Umwelt feindlich und existenzbedrohend. Es bedarf eines ständigen Kampfes, um sicherzustellen, dass nichts Schlimmes passiert.

In der Vergangenheit benutzten die Menschen Fahnen und Banner, um ihren Beitrag zur Ordnung zu veranschaulichen. Die Vereine haben ihre Arbeit stolz präsentiert, und es gab Paraden, die in Reihe und Reihe marschierten, der Inbegriff der Ordnung. Aber wir haben auch festgestellt, dass es auch zu viel sein kann. So wie das Chaos zu viel werden kann, kann es auch zu viel Ordnung geben, und das Leben wird zu eng und wir fühlen, dass wir ersticken könnten. Wir brauchen ein Gleichgewicht zwischen Ordnung und Chaos, einen Mittelweg, um alles im Gleichgewicht zu halten.

Uralte Kulturen haben das Gleichgewicht hoch gehalten, Yin und Yang zum Beispiel, und in allem, wo das Leben erfolgreich ist, haben sie dieses Gleichgewicht gefunden. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass wir diese Art von Ordnung nicht erreicht haben, um im Gleichgewicht zu sein. Stattdessen gibt es entweder zu viel oder zu wenig, was der Gesellschaft schadet. Letztendlich endet alles im Chaos, wenn das Gleichgewicht nicht gehalten werden kann. Aber wie können wir das erreichen? Wie können wir es bewusst leben; wie können wir es für unsere Kinder und für uns selbst darstellen?

Müssten politische Parteien nicht zeigen, wie sie die Gesellschaft im Gleichgewicht halten wollen? Stattdessen hat man oft das Gefühl, dass Politik entweder einseitig links oder rechts ist. Selbst wenn die Parteien behaupten, das Zentrum besetzen zu wollen, gibt es keinen Beweis dafür, wie ihre Politik das Gleichgewicht wiederherstellt. Gibt es eine Gruppe oder Gruppe, die dies erfolgreich nachweisen kann?

How to be right in a world gone wrong – James O’Brien

Recently I bought the book named above and sat down to read it. A lot had been written about the book and praised it as humorous and yet revealing at the same time. I have enjoyed reading the book, which is written in easily accessible English and puts it arguments clearly forward, backed up with transcripts as examples for what O’Brien has confronted with a rather simple principle: Don’t argue, ask questions. The following lack of answers show clearly that controversial disputations, especially in the internet, are often hollow.

It is so simple that it is hard to understand why the book had to be written – but it definitely had to be written, and the transcripts show you why. It is cause for bewilderment that the media have gained such an influence and is never held to task over why it is printed or broadcast. We all know that newspapers are after our money and they want to increase sales, regardless of the consequences, but the consequences are made clear by O’Brien.

We desperately need to get back to principles of behaviour that prevent the moguls from leading us down a path that we’d rather not go, the consequences be known. His quote from Dostevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” says it all:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And, having no respect he ceases to love.

I was probably too fast when I wrote that the book was “humorous and yet revealing”. It is a devastating witness to the fact that the people who want unbridled capitalism to rule and throw out (even to burn) workers rights, are using the EU, immigration, “fake news” etc. to suggest that they are the champions of working people and acquiring their vote. Whilst all the time planning their downfall and making a profit. People are believing these smooth right-wing Politicians, because they want someone to blame, but it is those who are to blame who present them with targets. You can see it in the amount of times they have changed their position, lied and denied that they ever said things they had said on live television.

We need to be wary of these people and O’Briens book helps us to do that.

4. Malaya

The trip to Singapore with BAOC Airways lasted two days and went via Istanbul and Bombay. I thought it was all a big adventure and even helped to give sick bags to people when the turbulence overwhelmed them. Jeff was still a baby and Colin was not healthy at that time. He got sick in the car and later when flying, as did my mother, so travelling must have been a rather traumatic experience for her. At some point, the flight attendant said I was the only passenger who wasn’t ill. That made me very proud. Istanbul and Bombay seem shrouded in darkness and it may have been nighttime when we arrived there and still sleepy got off the plane for a walk around. I never had the chance to realise what cultural differences there were to be seen in those countries, although we did comment that people dressed “funny” in those places. We seem to have been cut off from any civilian travellers.
When we arrived in Singapore, we had to take the train to Ipoh in order to get to Malacca, which I found fascinating looking at the people at the station, who of course, were very different from us. I was absorbed by the journey in another country with a different culture, although my mother was completely worried. After we were bundled sleepily from the station into a waiting Landrover, the adventure continued. We drove through the night, speeding down narrow roads covered in strange foliage, the whole experience was foreign to me, but I was keen to stay awake. When we reached Terendak Camp and we drove over a bump, it almost threw me out of the vehicle. I was told that we had just driven over a python on the road.
The time in Malaya was an exciting time and we children discovered so many things. Playing outside regularly eight years old, running on the beach that had palm and coconut trees lining it, being warned of stingrays, jellyfish, and scorpions. The excitement grew when actually encountering such things, we were lucky that nothing unfavourable happened to us. My imagination was untamed back then and we played out our ideas with great enthusiasm – much to the horror of our parents. Once we ran naked through the bush, mimicking the dark children on the beach, when a soldier caught one of the group, leaving the rest of us to hurriedly climb into our den to put our clothes back on. Once one of the group fell into a swamp, which traumatised me quite a bit, as I had seen movies in which people had died terribly this way, and I ran away in a panic. In fact, choking or drowning became my biggest fear and I regularly had nightmares in which I choked. Once I was hit by an “arrow” made out of thin wooden slivers, and which had to be carefully removed and treated with iodine. I also dreamed of flying through our house at night, which seemed so real to me that I excitedly told my mother. She looked at me in surprise and probably didn’t believe me, but it must have had her thinking.
When visiting Kuala Lumpur, we went on an outing to the Batu Caves, seven miles (13 km) north of the capital of Malaysia and set in a small hill that seemed to me like a mountain. In a field below we saw a five-legged cow. The poor beast was born with an added leg on its back and was said to be considered holy because of this. In fact, it was just an attraction for visitors. The caves are one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions and are a place of pilgrimage for Tamil Hindus. The true attraction, however, after climbing a curving stairway with 272 steps, was a cave with a multitude of bats, that hung from the ceiling. We could only enter in complete silence if we didn’t want to wake them. The other reason we visited those caves was that it was the site of a tragic battle against Japanese invaders. When trapped in the complex of limestone grottoes, a number of soldiers tried to dig their way out but died as their tunnel collapsed. This story left such an impression on me as a nine-year-old that I have claustrophobic nightmares to this day.
My nightmares might have also had something to do with how I learned to swim. Namely, being thrown into the pool where I couldn’t stand and breathe at the same time. After I had overcome my fears, which was especially important because my father was a master swimmer in the army, I finally learned to swim and although I fell from a high diving board, I learned to jump off it with no problems. My father and I even swam in the sea, where the current was hard to manage. We seemed to swim miles, but it probably wasn’t. I was bound to secrecy because my mother had enough fears. She didn’t have to imagine that I was stung by a jellyfish. The danger of jellyfish wasn’t to be taken lightly. One day my brother and I had spent nearly 3 hours playing with a log in the sea, as we had done very often. We were just getting dry watching another child play with the log when he screamed and had to be taken out of the water. He had a long red mark across his body and was rushed to the hospital. We heard reports that he was in a critical condition for days and overheard a conversation by unwitting adults who said we had lured the jellyfish but were out of the water before they came, I felt guilty for some time.
Fishing with my father on a long beach with soft sand also had its dangers. We had to cast our hook and weights far out, and my father was very skilled at it. Of course, I tried to follow suit. Several times we caught catfish, once a baby shark and very often stingrays, which we had to spear into the ground with a makeshift fork in order to release our hook and get our tackle back. Sometimes, when it was too difficult, my father cut the line and waited for the catch to die. Sometimes we were disappointed because they seemed to come back to life and managed to get into the water and swim away. My father told me that I should remember what was living in the sea, not far offshore, and be careful when swimming.
Whilst we were in Malaya, there were rumblings in Sumatra, an elongated landmass spanning a diagonal northwest-southeast axis close to Malaya across the Straits of Malacca. These “disturbances” were portrayed as the struggle with communism in western newspapers. Some independent authors have said that this is a wrong portrayal of the upheaval that led to half a million deaths, and that it was really the struggle of an underdeveloped country against the rising globalisation of markets. However you see this bloody dispute, it was a cause of worry for the Malayan Government and the British Army that was posted there for protection.
When, one day, I had strayed southwards from our Scout house down the beach with a friend, we stumbled across a large tree with what looked like the remains of a treehouse in its branches. We started playing around and almost forgot the time. When we felt that it was about time to go home, guessing by the sun and our shadows, like we had been taught at the Boy Scout Cubs, we were stood together when an explosion blew earth, dead palm leaves, and sand into the air. First of all, we froze as the rubble came down on us, but then we thought we were under attack and ran as fast as we could back up the beach. Only then did we realise how far we had roamed but we didn’t stop running until we reached the quarters and blurted out what we had experienced. We didn’t know where it had come from, but very soon afterward we found the trees that grew up to the beach were full of soldiers with pieces of artillery. That set my imagination going and soon I was telling everyone that we had nearly been blown up by communists. Only far later as an adult did I consider the fact that, if we had wandered into a shooting range, the explosion could have been caused by our own side. We never wandered that far down the beach again.
Nevertheless, it was more or less a carefree life we had as children, which ignored the stress the soldiers were struggling with. The Vietnam War was going on in the north of the country and my father and his comrades were not spared the confrontation with the dangers of the jungle or the danger of communist guerrillas reaching the Malaysian kingdom. Although they were transport soldiers, they had to go on patrols in the jungle, where the vegetation alone could cause extensive wounds. There were tales of shots fired and communist guerrillas killed, but also of casualties in their own ranks.
As part of their attempt to play down the situation, there were parties in the quarters that kept us children awake because the soldiers played bowling with the beer cans they stacked. The stress told on some, and parties sometimes grew loud or even violent. There was a reason why this posting was only for three years. In the mornings I often found half-full beer cans and sometimes I sipped on them trying to figure out what they thought was so good. Of course, stale beer doesn’t taste good and it takes more than a few sips to understand why the soldiers were so keen on it. Although I’m aware that these soldiers were doing their best under the circumstances, they were transport soldiers, not crack combat troops. Later in life, I had a similar experience and saw what happened when young men like my father came into a combat situation. Even if such situations had awoken just a fraction of the fear that war installs into people, it should be clear that people change under the duress, and this explains their behaviour sometimes.
But our time also had good times, like when we travelled to the “Cameron Highlands” which was further north. We seemed to be circling a huge hill as the bus struggled up and we could see Malayan life much as it was. Everything seemed to take place on the roads and we saw people selling unknown foods, as well as chickens and goats. One stall had huge beetles on display that looked the size of footballs to us children. One evening we were told that nobody was allowed on the streets because a hungry tiger was close. Colin and I stood at the windows, listening to the evening sounds and imagining what was transpiring just a short distance away. We did witness a death though when we watched the cook of the restaurant in the hotel cut the head off of a chicken and chase the carcass around the area below our window.
At one time, we were told that ants were marching towards Terendak camp and if they should get close, we would be evacuated. After that, as soon as we discovered ant-hills we ran home to tell our parents. The only emergency we did experience that came from the jungle was a hoard of monkeys that terrorised us until the soldiers came. We were all safe within the houses, but monkeys had never seemed so dangerous. This was accentuated on the day that a young lady, who was posing with a monkey, was suddenly attacked by the animal that started pulling her blouse and hair until blood ran. These experiences fuelled my nightmares, but I seldom told anyone.
As children, it was all part of the great adventure we had and we didn’t think about returning to the rain and snow of Britain one day. But the clock was ticking.