Johnny was my great granddad. I’ve found myself thinking about him a lot lately although I barely knew him. Johnny was born in Glasgow in 1899 at the fag-end of Victoria’s reign. He came of age just in time to see service at the end of the Great War having already seen his father and older brother go marching off to France. James, his big brother, lies there still – killed after only a few weeks at the front. Was it co-incidence that Johnny joined up only a month later? The war ended and Johnny returned to the coal mines of Stirling. Then in the 1930s, the war clouds gathered again in the skies of Europe. Just over two weeks after Hitler marched his armies into the Rhineland Johnny joined the Army again as a Territorial and when war came in 1939 he was sent to France. Hitler unleashed his Blitzkrieg in the Summer of 1940 and Johnny’s regiment was flung into the thick of the fighting as the British and French forces collapsed.
The day after the Dunkirk evacuation finished Johnny and his pals were stubbornly holding the village of Franleu against the Wehrmacht. Outnumbered, outgunned and too thinly spread to stem the tide they were finally overwhelmed – better than half of the officers and men were either killed or taken prisoner. Johnny was marched off to a POW camp at the age of 40. He endured five years in captivity - working down salt mines for a time before somehow wangling himself a job as an orderly for a variety of officers. When he was finally set free he returned home to a family that had grown up in his absence and a world that had changed in so many ways. He went back down the pit and tried to pick up his life where it had left off in 1939.
Johnny’s story is hardly unique but I wonder what he would make of the new world he fought for. Post-war Britain was meant to be a fairer place for the working man. Atlee’s Labour government set out rebuilding the shattered country, finally making good on all those “Land fit for heroes” promises made so many years before and provide a system that took all under its wing from “cradle to the grave.”
And yet somewhere along the line that post-war consensus crumbled. Selfishness and greed became desirable; ignorance became admirable, hatred and intolerance crawled back out from the shadows to blight people’s lives once more. Here I sit, just a couple of years older than Johnny was in 1940 looking at a world seemingly hell bent on revisiting all of the mistakes of the past – fascism on the march in Europe, cheered on from the side-lines by the quasi-blackshirt UKIP party and flag waving little Englanders. America and Russia also seem to want to turn the clock back to the 1930s. We’re living in a post-fact world where political discourse has been reduced to the 140 characters of a tweet and truth has been discarded in favour of bumper sticker sized soundbites with only tenuous links to reality and reasoned debates have been replaced with memes and flat out lies while leaders sneer at educated experts because being clever is suspicious in our brave new world.
This new world terrifies me. I lie awake and wonder if my two kids will grow up and be able to look back on this time in history as some temporary aberration. That this time will be just an ugly smear on a more pristine future. Then another part of me wonders whether we are about to go plunging off some terrible precipice just as we did in 1939 and whether this time it’s going to be me marching off to war to fight for a better tomorrow because we failed to protect the dreams of Johnny’s generation.
Christmas is Coming...
Christmas is coming and with it the new annual ritual of Christmas commercials as the big retailers strive to outdo each other with their appeals for your hard earned cash..
Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those people who moans about the increasing commercialisations of Christmas. After all the whole concept of Christmas is ridiculous to start with. So the way I see it, there's no sense getting upset about a Christian festival which has been piggybacked on top of far more ancient Pagan rituals. No, my issue is the way these adverts are now somehow held up as something important, something culturally significant. They've seized hold of the public’s imagination like something from beyond the wildest dreams of Mad Men’s Don Draper. Their arrival is awaited with bated breath by the great British public who rush to their smartphones to flash them around social media to all their friends who of course are sharing it right back at them until our news feeds are choked with an endless stream of videos on repeat – and that's before the inevitable parody videos arrive. The anticipation for this year's John Lewis tv spot was so high over 400,000 people watched a fake version made by an A-level pupil.
The irony is that in many cases these adverts don't actually sell a product or a service. It’s all about promoting the brand. John Lewis has spent £1 million on its latest creation along with a staggering £6 million to pay for prime tv slots to show it.
So why do we care? In a world which seems to be going to Hell in a hurry it feels trivial to get worked up into such a hyperbolic lather about a tv ad. Never mind all that nasty stuff, the message seems to be, just shut up, consume, be part of our marketing strategy, share our ad with your friends and don't forget to go to iTunes and buy the accompanying soundtrack. Don't think too hard and, hey, why-not grab a drink from the Coca-Cola Christmas truck while you're at. Just don't look out of your window and let reality spoil that cosy glow.
Stop. Take a deep breath. Repeat after me. It's. Just. An. Advert. It's not art, it's just clever marketing being jammed down your throat like a big basket of tinsel wrapped Brussels sprouts slathered with toxic gravy. You don't need the man on the moon or a dog on a fucking trampoline to validate your festive season for you. Enjoy your Christmas in your own way.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to punch a few carol singers before I put my tree up.
All about Bill:
Born in Perth and now living just outside Aberdeen, Bill Robertson has created a large body of work showcasing a tendency towards the darker side of life and stories which leave an indelible impression on the reader long after the final word is read.
An active member of Aberdeen’s Lemon Tree Writer’s Group, Bill’s work has appeared in Journeys, an anthology of work from the group, and most recently in a chapbook, Himself by the Seaside. He has performed some of his stories as part of the Word and New Words festivals and other events around the north-east. He has also self published two e-books: Reindeer Dust, a short Christmas story, and When the Revolution Comes, a collection of linked short stories concerning an uprising in a fictional eastern European country. A number of his stories have featured on the website http://www.shortbreadstories.co.uk, where he has been chosen as the featured Friday story a number of times and has won a number of competitions with his short stories and flash fiction pieces.
If you would like to hear an interview with Bill and listen to him read some of his work, please go to this link to hear Bill’s appearance on Mearns FM's Smith on Sunday show. You can also keep up to date with Bill’s work by visiting http://www.billrobertson55.wordpress.com, where he often shares work in progress as well as finished stories.