When 11,615 miles really is a world away

The most difficult thing about moving to the other side of the world is leaving family behind. When I left New Zealand six years ago and hugged my nana and grandad goodbye, deep down I had a feeling that I was unlikely to see them again. They were in their 80s then and, as I headed to a country more than a day’s air travel away, I knew I’d never be able to return in time if things suddenly went wrong.

When my father told me on Monday that grandad didn’t have much longer, I wondered if I could make it in time. But, as I wrote my father an email with things I wanted my grandad to know so that he could read them to him, I knew deep down that there was no way.

It’s times like that when the distance hurts – so far from my grandad when he was in his final hours and so far from my parents and sister when I wanted to be able to help and comfort them.

I love all of my grandparents. I know I was special to each of them and I think of them a lot. I have my grandpa’s Yorkshire stubbornness and I aspire to be as generous to others as he was towards me. I think of my grandma every time I’m on a train through Birmingham, as that’s where she was from. My nana was so proud of her family and her grandchildren, making sure that dozens of Christmas cards, birthday gifts and congratulations for exam results were sent on time.

But my grandad lived the longest and so I knew him best.

I remember his way of greeting my younger sister: “Howdy, pal,” – a greeting he once used when she was very young and, as it had tickled her fancy, he had used it ever since.

She remembers him teaching us about the stars. I remember him teaching me about the mechanics of the Titanic, different types of cows (he was a farmer) and about growing plants and vegetables.

When war came, he had his eyes on being a pilot. Lacking the maths qualification needed at the time didn’t stop him. He simply taught himself until he got it.

ImageI remember interviewing him about his war service for a school history project. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for completing a bombing raid in Europe after flack had taken out one of his Lancaster’s engines but getting a sparkling quote from this modest man was seemingly impossible. To him, it was a job that simply had to be done and the medal was a recognition of his crew more than it was of his flying skills or courage. And so that, as he often said, was that.

He had every quality Kiwis admire: determination, resourcefulness and humility. And he was a link to a very special generation that is fewer in number as the years go on. But he had a sense of adventure – traveling to Europe and then later to the Mid East as a pilot in the 1940s. Maybe, if I’m lucky, he gave me a little of that too.


A Kiwi’s reflections on Remembrance Day

In New Zealand our poppy day and day of remembrance is Anzac Day, a public holiday on April 25. While we recognise Armistice Day, it is Anzac Day (the anniversary of the ill-fated Gallipoli landings of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in 1915) that sees millions of people from both countries gather at their local cenotaph or memorial for dawn services and, later in the morning, the parade. While the military campaign failed and serves as our reminder of the high human cost of war, the actions of those soldiers created what became known as the Anzac Legend, something our two countries are proud of. But I don’t remember any rules for how a poppy should be worn (I’ve been told the leaf is meant to point to 11 o’clock here?) or any looking down on those who choose not to wear one at all.
During this past week I’ve read about newsreaders who have received hate mail for not wearing a poppy and about an MP criticising an internet search engine for not making its page “spectacular” enough on Remembrance Day. There was a sense among many on twitter that people should show their remembrance in the “correct” way, whatever that is.
I don’t like how wearing a poppy seems to be expected. I don’t like how people are made to feel they have to “prove” they care about remembrance. For some people remembrance is a very private thing. My grandad, who was awarded a DFC in the RAF in 1944, never marched in his local parade until I was in high school (and even then I think it was because we encouraged him to). Perhaps remembrance was painful or there were other reasons for his reluctance. I don’t know. I like the ceremony and the parades but, for whatever reason, being a part of them wasn’t the way my grandad chose to remember. And that’s ok.
While in Afghanistan I met a young officer who had lost a friend, killed in Helmand a few weeks earlier. That wasn’t the reason for our interview but we couldn’t ignore it. The young man’s bedspace was just metres from us and, while his cot had gone, the other soldiers in the tent had posted photos of him in the space and made it a little makeshift memorial to him. They walked past it every time they left or entered their tent. Remembrance was obviously very personal to them and was not limited to one day a year.
On Remembrance Day I think of those soldiers and the friend they lost, a friend they still miss. I think of great grandfathers I never met who served in the First World War and witnessed waste and slaughter on an almost incomprehensible scale. I think about grandparents who served in the Second. I think of those who fought and died alongside them.
I think of those I have known and those I have not who are still fighting or have fought “over there”. And I think of those who feel as if they’re fighting a battle even after the tour is over. I give what I can to the RBL collection tin because I think those who served should be looked after when they need it.

But you won’t know any of that from whether or not I’m wearing a poppy.

It doesn’t matter if someone wears a poppy and how it is worn. Those soldiers of the past, those who fell where the poppies grow, taught us there are more important things. One of those is remembering why we have this day in the first place.