I was raised by a working class Conservative. My father bought into the Thatcher fallacy that if you just worked hard enough, you’d be successful.
And it was sort of true, or at least it appeared to be true, for a while.
He left school at 14 and went to work in a factory, sewing men’s pyjamas, eventually moving into women’s fashion and working his way up to production manager for a luxury brand. When the British rag trade died my father followed production to Eastern Europe and stayed for a decade, but eventually his career progression died too. He now lives less than a mile away from the council house I grew up in, having retired early due to ill health.
My mother always voted Labour, a secret she kept well away from my dad. Her mother’s family were true labourers, farm labourers, hay balers and potato pickers for generations, we didn’t have aspirations, but we didn’t need them. We lived in a small village, the exact same place we’d been for several centuries, maybe more, but the lives of folk like us weren’t recorded with much care or accuracy.
My mother’s father, Leonard Coote Jr, was born in another small village nearby. He’d been named after his own father, Leonard Snr, who had died in a Belgian trench before his son was born. Leonard Jnr didn’t visit his father’s grave, although he would later travel further than any of his family imagined possible.
There are no photos of Leonard Snr, his family were too poor for such fripperies, so the only traces that Leonard Snr left were his name, carved into the wood of a rural church memorial, and carried onwards by the son-he-hadn’t-met, and a large brown medal that he’d never seen. My granddad kept in the pull-down cabinet next to his chair, alongside a carton of woodbines and a bottle of hair oil.
Sometimes my Nan would get it out to dust and leave it out on display, but my granddad didn’t much like looking at it and eventually it was given to me and I kept it in my bedroom, Britannia and her lion beside my A-Ha posters and WorzelGummidge stickers. The inscription gave me the shivers, ‘He died for freedom and honour’, and his name, in much smaller lettering.
Later on I named my son Leonard too.
Leonard Jr didn’t want to travel to Belgium to visit Lijssenthoek Military Ceremony, his father’s final resting place. He didn’t want to read his own name, inscribed on one of the scores of identical headstones, and he’d done enough traveling to last him a lifetime already.
He’d been conscripted himself of course, assigned to the same regiment as his late father, he was proud to do his duty, to take his turn at defending our homeland and people, challenging the assault on our values, although he must’ve been terrified too.
I have a photograph of him in a brand new uniform, a safari suit, snapped in a local portrait studio and printed on a postcard, he wouldn’t be like his dad, forever faceless, he was determined that he would at least leave his image behind. Days later, Leonard Jr was sent to Africa, tasked with fighting for King and Country in a land he’d barely heard of, against a people he didn’t know.
My grandfather didn’t talk about the war, but when he eventually came home, long after the VE Day celebrations were over, he arrived back not from Africa, but from Burma.
He returned, rather dramatically, with malaria, a taste for spicy food, some staunch anti royalist views and a tattoo. A blurry dragon, hand poked into his forearm.
In later years, Leonard Jr kept his dragon covered, when out in public anyway, but I loved to look at it and he loved me enough to let me. His skin was tanned to leather from years of working shirtless in the sun, once as a Chindit, tasked with destroying Japanese-built railways, now a navvy, building miles of new track back home.
The tattoo fascinated me, but whenever I asked about it, or anything about the war at all, my granddad told me only this, that if ordinary people were to avoid being used as cannon fodder again, we had to stick together, no matter where we came from, no matter the colour of our skins.
As a very small child, I thought he was talking about tattoos, not ethnicity.
Back then, political affiliations were denoted by social clubs, not Facebook groups. I learned my own affiliations sitting at the feet of strong men and women, listening to them talk while their hands played darts and dominoes.
My grandfather didn’t sing the national anthem, didn’t wear a poppy, didn’t let people use ‘sacrifice’ as a euphemism for ‘massacre’. That was patriotism, as he saw it.
Leonard Jr’s regiment has gone down in history as ‘The Forgotten Army’ but he didn’t get to forget a single thing. He had that big brown Dead Man’s Penny, in the pull down cabinet beside his chair, to remind him.
My great grandfather was just one of 17 million living, loving people that lost their lives in World War One.
My granddad just one of many children who grew up with a medal instead of a father.
We remember, of course we remember, how could we forget?
But remembrance alone is not enough.
My granddad passed away in 1989, when I was 13 years old. I’ve just turned 40, but his advice has never felt so important, so immediate as now:
“We must stand together, no matter where we come from, no matter the colour of our skin. Our strength is in togetherness.”
A previous, much shorter version of my grandfather’s story appeared in Skin Deep Magazine, issue number 266.
I am proud to retell it for Scisco Media, to mark the occasion of Remembrance Sunday 2016. I hope I am able to do both Leonards justice.