In their prime my paternal grandparents were each – in their different ways – formidable members of the "great generation". They didn't suffer fools gladly or (unless obliged by family ties and then with open scorn) at all. They thought psychology was fake. They thought depression was weakness glorified. My grandfather was a cripple and, as I learned the hard way, got angry if you used the euphemism "disabled".
Why are you playing with words? Calling me something else makes me no less crippled you bloody fool!
They thought hard work, prudence, patriotism and family loyalty were the keys to all progress.
They may sound scary and – to their first of many grandchildren – they often were, but they were impressive too. This, despite having suffered losses that would justify many moderns in claiming lifelong victimhood. They just accepted them as their fate, got on with life and became angry if you mentioned them.
My grandmother had received "the telegram" from the non-euphemised War Ministry during WWII after my grandfather broke his back in an accident on a troopship. His commanding officer had assumed he wouldn't make it and sent a premature report of his death. He survived, but was told he'd never walk. Grandmother's first inkling that the MoW had erred was his knock at the door, having walked several miles from the railway station. They expected no apology for the Army's incompetence and lack of concern for their welfare or (God forbid) feelings. They suffered no PTSD. They never thought to sue. There was a war on. Worse had happened to others. Worse still needed to be done to others, so the war could be won.
Grandfather was not confined to the long-promised wheelchair until his eighties, by dint of forcing himself to walk miles every day in agony. His country had rewarded him in 1946 by seizing the transport business that he and his brothers had founded with their savings from working down a coal mine as teenagers. He never complained about that, saying that the Labour Party was sincere, if misguided, in taking it and that his fellow citizens (including his sister) had voted for it genuinely believing the country would run it better. It hadn't (as he had predicted to them at the time) and he'd lived to see his business re-privatised. He had also lived to see the Soviet Union fall and died thinking such nonsenses were now ancient history. He never bemoaned his own fate in that experiment; saying when I pressed him on the subject near to his end, that to be angry at his Labour-voting family and friends would have achieved nothing but to make him miserable. Life wasn't ever fair. He didn't vote Labour precisely because he wasn't naive enough to think it could be.
Why do I tell these stories now? Because I remember watching the personalities of these formidable folk crumble when old age and frailty confined them to their conservatory. Their view of the world became distorted as their direct experiences of it dwindled. Their news of events in their old orbit was limited to what visitors chose to share. These fiercely-independent people began to live inside their own heads and to get things wrong in ways their admiring, if fearful, grandson would never have expected.
As I have watched my country during the pandemic from my own equivalent of their conservatory; locked-down not by ill-health but state force, I have been alert to parallels between my experience and theirs. My information sources were limited as were the range of friends with whom I could discuss them. I feared to blog about the issues, not because I was afraid to be in a minority – I have been in that position for many decades now – but because I sincerely worried that I might be losing touch with reality. The situation was so artificial that I feared for my own judgement. I thought my mind might be failing me as theirs had in their isolation. As we begin to return to normality, I begin to realise I drew the wrong parallel.
I have been inclined to despise my fellow-Brits to be honest. Opinion polls suggested they were not the potential John Hampdens I had always imagined, but actually more like Pavliks. Even friends I had considered essentially "sound" were in fearful submission to, essentially, whatever the hell the establishment chose to tell them would save them from the plague. I kept quiet because I feared I might be wrong – and I was, but not in the way I thought.
We Britons have let ourselves down in this crisis. We have looked for answers elsewhere rather than seeking them out ourselves. We have listened too much to authority, while demanding it give us bread. In the last few days we've allowed ourselves to be distracted by authority posturing about the modern circus that is football. But in some ways we have been like my grandparents at their best, not their worst. Terrified by data deliberately warped to maximise our fears, we have tried our best to be good citizens in the face of danger. "There's a war pandemic on" we told ourselves, so normal rules don't apply and it would be disloyal to moan. Others have it worse (look at what a mess those idiots in Brussels, Paris and Berlin have made, for example) so we should just get on with it as best we can.
Yes I was in my equivalent of my elderly grandparents' conservatory, but I was not alone. The whole frightened nation was in it too. The difference is that – unlike my grandparents – we're going to emerge. We have not yet failed the test of who we are as a nation. It is about to be set as we return to normality. I hope we pass it in a way that would make my grandparents in their prime proud.