04 March 2004
Few children question their parents' lives: they are too busy making sense of their own. But it is hard to achieve self-knowledge if the parental canvas is wholly blank. Why did Annette Kobak's father never mention his family or past? Why were there no photographs, why did he sleep with a hammer under his pillow? Joe's War records her cathartic voyage of discovery and self-discovery as she follows her father, literally and figuratively, from Czechoslovakia, where he was born, to the Polish-Ukrainian border, where he spent his teens, and across Europe as he fled the invading Russians and the Germans to England, where he joined General Anders's Polish army.
Trained in electrical engineering, Joe was assigned to signals. He spent his time eavesdropping on the Russians, not for the British, whose official ally Stalin was, but for the Poles, whose bitter enemy Stalin remained. This confused conflict had vast consequences for Poland: its complexities form the core of Kobak's discoveries.
Joe's War is framed by Kobak's journey to her father's old home, and by his own account of the missing years, finally taped over many sessions in Australia, where he now lives. In between, she and we come to realise what was going on behind the scenes: the political and military manoeuvrings, the historical tides and monstrous betrayals that shaped his life and washed him up in a south London suburb.
The result is a kaleidoscope of stories, personal and historical, unified and fuelled by the author's need to know. Why, when she visited Poland and Ukraine, were people on the Polish side still so bitter and the Ukrainians, though poorer, so much cheerier? Why were the Poles, who fought so valiantly and whose contribution to the Allied victory was so effective, excluded from the victory parades of 1945? Why was Czechoslovakia between the wars such a haven of civilisation, and Britain so uncaring about its fate? What really happened to General Sikorski? Why, above all, was Joe so resolutely mute for so many years?
"You solve one mystery only to hit upon another," Kobak remarks, as yet another chance encounter lights up an unexamined corner. Here, perhaps, lies the key to her book's achievement. This super-eclectic mix of travelogue, oral testimony, autobiography and historical documents might easily have become unmanageable. But Kobak's thrilling race to discovery carries the reader along. Like her, we can't wait to know what happened next, and why; like her we are filled with hopeless fury as politicians abolish lives and nations to ingratiate themselves with other politicians. We applaud breathlessly as Joe slips one trap after another, and stand fascinated as chance meetings lead to serendipitous revelations.
It will soon be 60 years since those Pole-less VE Day celebrations. Voices like Joe's are falling silent. Fortunately, his was recorded in time. Annette Kobak both reveals a Europe we never knew, and points up the importance of knowing it.
The reviewer's 'People's Chef: Alexis Soyer' is published soon by Wiley
to Black Beauty
Kathryn Hughes on the biographies that will be making waves in 2004
Saturday December 27, 2003
The best of the bunch includes Joe's War: My Father Decoded (January, Virago) by Annette Kobak, which deals with the wartime experience of one young Czech man as he works his painful way through occupied Europe to London, where he is employed to intercept morse messages. As well as being a meditation on the way that stories which once seemed frozen behind the iron curtain are now thawing back to life, Joe's War is also a frank account of the impossibility of ever fully realising that your parents once knew a time that did not include you.
In Her Dad's Footsteps
Uncovering the wartime Joe
By Andrew Nagorski
March 22 issue - He was a man without a past and I failed to notice," British writer Annette Kobak notes in "Joe's War: My Father Decoded" (444 pages. Alfred A. Knopf). As the subtitle suggests, her bookpart biography, part memoir, part historychronicles her effort to trace her father's origins and his odyssey during World War II. A war baby of a British mother and a Polish father, Kobak knew only that her parents had met in London, when her mother was in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and her father was in the Polish Army under British command.
Jozef, or Joe, didn't discuss his past, and neither his daughter nor his wife ever asked. It was only as a grown woman that Kobak learned that her father was born in a Slovak village of Polish parents, who moved across the border to Poland when Joe was 13. She got her father to break his silence by traveling to Australia, where her parents had moved after she started her own family. In a series of interviews, Kobak learned about his wartime journey, beginning in Lwow, then in eastern Poland, after Hitler's armies attacked Poland from the west and Stalin's armies invaded from the east. At 19, Joe managed to escape capture by the Russians, return to his village in the Carpathian Mountains under German occupation, elude the Gestapo and lead escapees across the border to Slovakia. He kept going south and west, joining Polish Army units in France that were evacuated to Britain after that country fell.
In the most evocative part of the book, Kobak retraces the early part of her father's 1939 journey. As she struggles across mountain paths to villages haunted by brutal memories, she tries to imagine what her father felt as well as experienced. There are no bombshell revelations, since Joe could count himself as one of the lucky ones simply by virtue of surviving, though the emotional scars lasted a lifetime. Gradually she realizes that his often volatile behavior and retreat into a "taciturn limbo" were their outward manifestations.
But even when he opened up, Joe left some questions dangling about his ordeal in one of the most desperate corners of Europe. For instance, did he kill a Russian guard while fleeing, or did he make up the story to cover up his unease about leaving a fellow Pole struggling with another guard? At one point, he says he had "no option but to take care of" the first guard; at another, he asserts: "I changed the story because I felt bad about it."
It's clear that Kobak knew as little about the war itself as she did about her father's personal history. Discovering how the West sold out Czechoslovakia before the war and Poland at war's end, she retells those stories in breathless detail. She often barely connects those events to her father's tale except to note that his fate was a product of the fates of those two countries. This makes the book disjointed, even rambling, in places, yet oddly moving precisely because of its almost guileless feel.
The war's legacy explains the bitterness and inwardness of so many exiles still in London and elsewhere. At times, Kobak confesses to ambivalence about "these emigres"including her father. But she points out that Australia's Aborigines believe that "our stories are what we are here for." By finally learning her father's story, she recognizes, her own becomes much richer.
He got away but never escaped
Aileen Reid reviews Joe's War by Annette Kobak
"What did you do in the war, daddy?" was not a question Annette Kobak ever asked her father. Something about his manner didn't encourage it. Maybe it was the hammer he kept under his pillow. Or the long silences punctuated by outbursts of anger.
As she describes it in this unusual memoir, however, her childhood in 1950s suburban south London was not much disturbed by these lacunae in parental knowledge. As children do, she just accepted the most perfunctory version of the family story - Dad was Polish, he came here in the war, met her English mother and never went home.
It was not until the early 1980s that Annette, by then established as a writer and broadcaster, first began to encourage her father - now living in retirement in Australia - to tell the story that became Joe's War. And startling reading it makes.
Brought up in Slovakia by Polish parents, Joe was a 19-year-old student in Lwow in Poland when war broke out. To avoid the Nazis he made a break eastwards, only to be met by the invading Red Army, which soon had the city under martial law - and Joe in prison for no apparent reason. After one night in the open air, he realised he had to escape again and bribed the guard with his watch - a stroke of luck as, Annette later discovered, the rest of the prisoners ended up in the Siberian gulag.
His plan was to get to his parents' home in Nazi-occupied Poland - an apparently counter-intuitive move, but a measure of the direness of conditions under the Soviets. The description of his escape across a frozen river with a grenade in his coat pocket, being shot at by the Russians, is heart-stoppingly exciting. But Joe made it through to a tearful reunion with his family. Soon, though, with the possibility of being conscripted into the German Army becoming more real, he escaped over the mountains on skis and arrived in Budapest, where he hooked up with some other Polish refugees with a view to making it to France and Allied territory.
Their journey westwards is a mix of the picaresque and the terrifying. The Hungarians, though nominally neutral, were pro-German so there was no time to be lost is getting away - which they did by car. Without any maps, they set off through Yugoslavia, dipping down to Venice for some sightseeing and, as they were in Italy anyway, they thought they might as well go on to Rome. Didn't they know there was a war on?
They soon did. Having made it to France, Joe volunteered for the Polish Army in exile, and found himself at the front, just as the French capitulated. His description of the chaos is reminiscent of the Dunkirk scenes in Ian McEwan's Atonement.
With food and ammunition running out - Joe and his comrades survived for a long time on a diet of cheese, sugar cubes and champagne - they made their way south and escaped by ship to Britain from Bordeaux, pursued by U-boats. Once here the Poles were absorbed into the British Army. Joe spent the rest of the war taking down coded radio messages from, among others, resistance operatives, married an English girl and was demobbed into Engish suburban anonymity. End of story.
Except it isn't. Joe Kobak's tale of escape, engagingly told in his own words from taped transcripts made by his daughter, would stand alone very well as a war memoir. It is gripping and studded with humour - when the Poles first got on to a British train they were surprised to see railway carriages designated "Smoking" - in Polish "Smoking" is the word for dinner jacket, so the soldiers, lacking such an item in their kitbags, got into "No Smoking" and promptly lit up.
But this war memoir is only one strand of Joe's War. This unusual and complex book is as much about Annette Kobak's attempt to understand her father's long silence about his past, as it is about that past. How she achieved that understanding is by a mixture of personal pilgrimage, to the sites of Joe's journey, and historical inquiry, into how her father's two homelands of Czechoslovakia and Poland were sacrificed, first to the Nazis and then to the Soviets. The Poles, having endured so much, were not even invited to the VE Day celebrations. She finally locates the key to his anger when she discovers what he was doing during the Cold War - and recognises that he has been suffering from what we used to call shell shock.
If this sounds hard going, it can be - there is a 60-page explanation of the Munich Agreement that takes some intellectual chewing - but by making the reader go through the same accretive process of understanding, Kobak conveys her sense of anger all the more potently. The book is also refreshingly untainted by psychotherapeutic navel-gazing.
Finally it is gratifying to learn that Joe Kobak is still here, a hale 83-year-old, to read his own story. Perhaps now the hammer can go back in the toolbox.
Aileen Reid is curator to the Emery Walker Trust
My Father Decoded
By Annette Kobak
KNOPF; 445 PAGES; $25.95
The past is another country, it's said. Annette Kobak (author of an acclaimed biography of Isabelle Eberhardt) discovered several countries (mainly Czechoslovakia, Poland and England) in her father's past when she undertook as an adult to explore the personal history of the parent who'd been a taciturn enigma throughout her childhood.
"Joe's War" is the admirable result: a book that's part memoir, part biography, part travelogue and (in its most stirring and valuable sections) part history of the great sorrows and tragedies endured by Czechs and Poles all through the 20th century.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Joseph Kobak served as a soldier with the Polish army during World War II and made his way to England, where he worked as a low- level radio spy, listening in to coded communications from Russia. In a way, he was a man without a country; but, his child came to believe, he was in a sense a citizen of a larger, "liberating realm of people who have periodically not had a state to be in, but who keep their values, their vocabulary and their wit."
In exploring her father's journey, Annette Kobak also tells the often harrowing, heartbreaking story of a large part of modern Central Europe -- connecting the one story to the other, sometimes with the skill of a novelist, sometimes with the grace of a poet, sometimes with the sheer determination of an independent scholar.
The author marvels at the future her father was able to piece together, "having started at the age of twenty-one with nothing but a horse-blanket and a past which threatened to ambush him. Perhaps I've made a similar bricolage with words, being my father's daughter." Reading this moving, one-of-a-kind work, a reader wants to cheer, in at least three languages.
A Soldier's Story
A writer attempts to uncover her father's history.
Reviewed by Zofia Smardz
Sunday, May 2, 2004; Page BW15
JOE'S WAR: My Father Decoded
By Annette Kobak. Knopf. 444 pp. $25.95
I know Annette Kobak's father. Well, no, I haven't actually met the man. Haven't ever laid eyes on him, except in the pictures in this memoir of what happened to him in World War II. And yet I feel I've known him all my life. He could be any of the Polish men in the New England town where I grew up, who drudged away in the paper mill or the shoe factories, building a new life in the New World and never, ever talking about the whirlwind events that had brought them there. He could be Mr. Deren or Mr. Kolodziej or Mr. Cybulski. Heck. Joe Kobak could be my father.
Just take a look at these parallels. When World War II broke out and the Nazis overran Poland, Kobak was a 19-year-old university student in the eastern city of Lwow. Ditto my father. After the Soviets marched in from the east to divvy up the country as part of their vile pact with Hitler, both young men found themselves living under the thumb of a totalitarian occupier. Eventually, in the deep of winter, Kobak made his way out of the country on skis, over the mountains and across the border into Slovakia -- exactly what my father did! From there, he made his way to France, where he signed up with a Polish unit fighting with the French army. Check.
They were dreamers, those young guys. They expected to rout the Nazi scourge and return triumphant to their liberated Polish homeland. Instead, they ended up in permanent exile -- Kobak in England, where he spent most of the war decoding signals for British intelligence and meeting and marrying the author's mother, and ultimately in Australia; my father, after a route that took him through Buchenwald and a string of DP camps, in America. But the echoes linger still. Joe Kobak worked as a civil servant and took correspondence courses that kept him from his family on nights and weekends. Guess what my father did. Kobak "was often taciturn, irritable and cowled with gloom. His whole manner discouraged questions about himself." Boy, do I know what that's all about.
You see the many reasons why I dove into Annette Kobak's book. Let me add that I was tempted by that meaningful subtitle, which seemed to promise a key to the secrets of my own parent's puzzling, prickly persona. And the author gets high marks for cleverness, having set up her father's tale like a mystery story, with paternal revelations interspersed throughout the volume and presumably building to a major epiphany at the end. It sure keeps you reading and wondering -- right through the many long chapters of historical background that, it turns out, constitute the bulk of this book.
The ultimate lack of an epiphany became something of an epiphany in itself, because what I thought was going to be an intimate father-daughter memoir really isn't much of one. More than two-thirds of Joe's War has nothing to do with Joe at all. After the absorbing, highly personal first chapter about the author's youth in London and her father's colorful but perplexing ways when she was growing up, the book turns largely into history text. Joe relates his experiences directly, in brief chapters. But they're sandwiched between much more extensive, heavily footnoted chapters about some major aspects of the war -- the sellout of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938 and the Nazi Blitzkrieg against Poland in September 1939 -- and one far less well-known episode: the exploits of the Polish army of Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, formed of Polish POWs from Siberian prison camps, that made its way out of the Soviet Union and across North Africa to become the heroes of the Allied offensive at Italy's Monte Cassino in 1944.
It's not that this isn't fascinating stuff, but it makes Joe's War a peculiar kind of book: a bit of a mish-mash, a pinch of this, a dash of that, not quite adding up to a harmonious whole. It's a pity, because Kobak is a smart, even elegant writer, capable of pithy observations that jump off the page. Here's one: "The Aborigines (and ancient Greeks) would say that our stories are what we are here for. For many of us now, our stories are on the bitty side, which may be what makes us fretful." Joe's story is hardly bitty -- it's bigger than anything most of us will ever experience. And yet, somehow, his daughter has managed, against all her avowed wishes, to render it small and not especially significant. Which makes me fretful. Because I feel I know Joe Kobak. But I was hoping to get to know him better.
Zofia Smardz is an editor in the Post's Outlook section.
My Father Decoded.
By Annette Kobak.
Silence can be an essential tool of survival during wartime -- sometimes, even long afterward. Such was the case with Annette Kobak's father, Joe, who shielded himself in silence to protect his family from what his daughter would come to learn was ''too dark a self-knowledge to take back into everyday life without becoming a pariah,'' as she writes in ''Joe's War,'' her vehement memoir of her father's experiences in World War II. Growing up in London, all Kobak knew about her father -- ''cowled with gloom,'' who slept with a hammer under his pillow -- was that he had been a soldier in the Polish Army. Born in Czechoslovakia, he was a student in Poland when the war broke out. He fought with Polish units in France, and in London, under the aegis of the British Army, he worked with a group intercepting Morse code signals from partisan cells and the Russians. Kobak also details her travels following the trail of her father's flight through Europe and gives extensive background on the Allies' betrayal of her father's two homelands. This illuminates Kobak's understanding of her father's history, but it makes her narrative ungainly, and draws the focus away from a deeper, more thorough treatment of just how her ''emotional quest'' affected Kobak, her father and their relationship.
THE SILENT SLAV
It didn't occur to me to ask my father as I grew up why he had nothing from his past before the war-no pictures of himself when young, no family photographs, no mementos of any kind. He was a man without a past, and I failed to notice. Since I grew up alongside the void, it seemed natural to me, as natural as the way his eyes oscillated continuously, or the way he slept with a hammer under his pillow.
Throughout my time at home in southeast London-first in a flat in Crystal Palace and then in a small, semidetached house in a drab suburb called Anerley-my father was often taciturn, irritable and cowled with gloom. His whole manner discouraged questions about himself, even if I'd been disposed to ask them, which, like most children, I wasn't. I was also my parents' only child, and, like most only children, took on the adults' coloring more than usual, being outnumbered. If the grown-ups weren't talking about something, I wasn't talking about it either.
The only facts I knew about my father as I grew up were that he'd been a soldier with the Polish army in the war and had ended up in London, where he'd met my English mother-who was in the women's air force at the time-playing table tennis. At the end of the war he'd taken a job as a watchmaker at Bravington's in Kings Cross, and at the same time studied in the evenings for a physics diploma somewhere in London. I thought he was Polish, because he'd been in the Polish army and had three Polish friends from those days. It wasn't until much later that I learned he was born in Czechoslovakia, so was technically Czechoslovak. By the time I began asking these questions, he was anyway "naturalized" British; and by the time I really started to ask him questions, he had emigrated to Australia.
After a bad war, I've read, the officers stammer and the ranks become mute. My father, who had been a foot soldier, ran true to form, his silence aggravated by being in a foreign country whose language he didn't speak at first. Although I didn't consciously know about his past, I sensed its presence by bumping up against the no-go areas protecting it. I also unwittingly adopted them as my own, and it's partly through butting up against their barbed presence in myself that I've unravelled his story, half a century later. Like the secret establishments omitted on an Ordnance Survey map, my father's past wasn't overtly acknowledged, but was very much there.
My English mother had a past and a visible one, although she was almost an orphan herself. Her mother had died when she was four, and she and her two sisters and brother were packed off to a rackety boarding school in Sussex where their first sight was of a small coffin being hustled out of the building, and where they were seldom visited by their dashing dental surgeon father, who was having problems of his own with four small children to support and a tempestuous love life. He died prematurely, too, when my mother was sixteen, and shortly after that she joined up in the WAAF and the war was on. Even though they must have been short on care-they would often be the only children left at their Dickensian school in the holidays, and it would be closed down in the end, its headmistress committed to prison-my mother and her siblings had photographs of themselves as children, buoyant and bouncy on pebbly beaches, and pictures of their ancestors. All of them grew up energetic and outgoing, sure of each other, and of where they had come from. Although my mother's father had left only debts financially, she had pieces of furniture from her past in our Crystal Palace flat: a tapestry prayer chair, a cabinet, a round mahogany table with brass clawfeet.
My father's few possessions were all to do with the war, and most were khaki, a dull color on the face of it, but as potent as Proust's madeleine to me. The first time I was asked to dance by a stranger was with a French soldier in Le Lavandou when I was fifteen, under the aegis of my French penfriend's family. It was exciting enough to be asked to dance the paso doble in a beach nightclub, the air thick with pine and the sound of crickets, let alone to feel the rough, clean khaki uniform, familiar from infancy. Later, in the sixties, I used to shop at Laurence Corner, the secondhand military store, just north of the Tottenham Court Road, favoring khaki flak jackets worn over a miniskirt. And a year or two later, against the grain of the times, I even married someone who had been a soldier. So there were the germs of an obsession there, and maybe that's what obsessions are: objects waving their hands in the air, trying to draw attention to something unresolved.
My father's tough, woolen, pocketed khaki uniform hung in my parents' wardrobe in our flat in Crystal Palace, its navy blue cap rolled under one of its epaulettes. At some point the uniform disappeared, but underneath it, stuffed in a back corner alongside a growing pile of Reader's Digests-always particularly well thumbed at "Laughter, the best medicine"-was a khaki silk parachute, its swathes of slippery material and eyelets rolled into a ball tied with white silk cords. It provided for our small household for years, a cornucopia amidst the postwar rationing, barely dwindling, it seemed, as my father clattered away on the sewing machine treadle, turning it into pocket linings, pajamas, an eiderdown cover. As a child, I slept in khaki silk pajamas he'd made, underneath a khaki eiderdown. No wonder something of his war rubbed off on my dreams.
I had a recurring nightmare of footsteps coming along the corridor to our flat, of the door opening slowly, and an ogre standing at the door. I know it's an ogre as soon as I hear the footsteps, and I run and hide behind the old mahogany radiogram, with its frayed brown weave behind a sunset fretwork. The ogre thuds over, knowing I'm there, and I wake in terror, my heart beating to the rhythm of his footsteps. Is the ogre my father? Did I, like many war babies tucked into comforting mothers' beds, resent the reappearance of my father when he came back from the war? Did he, slender and traumatized as he was, seem frightening with his uniform and his gruff, heavily-accented voice? I'm sure we babies born flanked by war breathed in extra doses of anxiety that never quite left us.
I was left to my own devices from an early age, a latchkey kid, as my parents were both out at work from when I was four-my mother working as a dental nurse an hour away to the south, my father working at Bravington's. I took myself off on the trolleybus down Anerley hill to school (longing to scroll out the buff-colored ticket from the machine like the bus conductor) and let myself back in with a doorkey on a ribbon around my neck. In the holidays, I used to roam around in the nearby Crystal Palace grounds with other children from the block of flats where we lived. Once or twice we managed to get across to the giant metal dinosaurs which prowl on the islands in the lakes. They were built by the Victorians, awestruck at having discovered that such creatures once existed, and conjuring up what they thought they must have looked like. We climbed up into the dinosaurs' echoing insides through holes in their bellies, and roared out from their mouths at passing lovers. In a photograph my father took of me in the Crystal Palace grounds with the dinosaurs, I'm not the freewheeling urchin I remember, but stand solemnly, with a proper coat and dress, looking sad. It's taken me all this time to turn around and notice those dinosaurs roaring silently behind me, and figure out what they were.
My father's three Polish friends from the army sometimes came to the flat for lunch on a Sunday: W’adek, Stanley, and Ted-W’adyslaw, Stanis’aw and Tadeusz, as they'd been in Polish. My father became animated and boyish when he was with them, quite different from the moody, grumpy person he was for much of the rest of the time.
Ted would bring whiskey from the pub in Herne Hill where he worked. He was small, cheery and stocky, the type of Polish immigrant who fuelled Hollywood after the war, like Gene Kelly, who-you only notice later when you're grown up-is very short from shoulder to waist. My father always seemed to defer to Ted. Stan was gangly, chain-smoking and intellectual, his dry reddish hair ruffled and unkempt, kept that way by raking it periodically with long nicotine-stained fingers. He was a bachelor, with a nervous edge I found appealing. He never had any money, and would come from Balham by bus, glad of the home cooking as much as the camaraderie. I only saw W’adek a few times, as he went off to Argentina when I was small and we never heard from him again, except for one letter to me in which he said he hadn't been eaten by crocodiles. I marvelled that he could guess that it was exactly what I was worried about. Before he left, he gave me a Teddy bear, its body long like a newborn baby's, its brown face solemn, the hump on its back and its low growl when you bent it over suggestive of grown-up cares.
My father seemed the youngest of them all. I could see he was proud to play host to them, bending down with exaggerated courtesy at their elbows, looking intensely into their faces to ask them what they'd like to drink, wringing his hands in anticipation. His light brown backwash of wavy hair, usually brushed away from his forehead, would spring forward. After lunch, the men would unfold a card table and settle down to playing cards, setting their amber drinks reverentially beside them, along with a brass ashtray made from an old bombshell. My father was the only one who never smoked. They would speak in Polish, a passport into a more raffish, virile land. The air grew thick with smoke and the mellifluous, clashing consonants of a language neither my mother nor I could speak. I wanted my father to teach me, but he laughed it off, saying with mock gruffness: "Oh you want to learn Polish, do you, well, what on earth do you want to learn that for?" Although it wasn't funny, he would say it as if it was, and more to impress Stan and Ted and W’adek than to answer my question. I would draw them all in a sketchbook, for want of anything better to do, and for want of other children around. They were completely unself-conscious, and I became an observer. Outside the flat, the air of an English winter afternoon that had never quite roused itself into daylight would congeal particle by particle into twilight. Inside, the air would thicken with smoke, the peeling mica in the grille of the coal-burning stove would crackle with heat, arms would describe more fulsome arcs, or thump down triumphantly on the table as somebody won a game. When my father won, he might brag abandonedly, beating his breast with pleasure, or he might shrug it off gently as if it wasn't him but some outside force that had done it. Once W’adek had gone away, my mother would join in the foursome, playing as volubly as they did. She smoked from a cigarette holder, which seemed to give her more control than she usually had.
In due course my father taught me a few numbers in Polish-jeden, dwa, trzy, cztery-as well as poker and canasta. I was the only child any of them had for a long time, and became good at cards, although I never did manage to cut and deal the cards as whistle-fast as they did, or fan out thirteen cards in one hand, or flip a whole pack through the air from hand to hand like an accordion. Card playing seemed to be the natural activity of grown-ups whenever they got together.
On our own on a Sunday, we would listen to Forces' Favourites, which later became Two-Way Family Favourites. Jean Metcalfe, Cliff Michelmore and Andrι Kostelanetz's "With a Song in My Heart" were as much part of our furniture as the mahogany radiogram in the corner. "Lance-bombardier Frank Medway stationed in Mόnchen-Gladbach would like us to play Pat Boone's 'I'll Be Home' for his sweetheart Valerie in Luton. It won't be long now, he says." "The forces," along with card playing, seemed to be where the adult action was. The forces were definitely with us. To have been in the forces seemed to give people weight and anchorage. My mother's relatives had all been in the forces in the war, as she had been. I knew my father had been a soldier, too, but that somehow didn't rate as being in the forces, which seemed to be an exclusively English thing. My mother's brother was so much in the forces that he stayed there, commanding his own RAF station, an aura of glamour around him as a result. He was clearly part of what won the war. However, neither he nor any of the other relatives, nor anyone else we knew, ever asked my father about his war, and I sensed that my father's part in it, whatever it was, was best left unsaid. He wasn't an officer, for a start, and then he was foreign, so his part in it was liable to be murky. For of course we knew-we kids who played "Japs and Germans" in the back garden of the block of flats-that it was foreigners we fought in the war, and it was we, the British, who won the war against them. It was Churchill and Douglas Bader and the Dam Busters who won the war: all British. Part of the reason I didn't even think of asking my father about his previous, foreign life is that I didn't know the right questions or even geography, and part was that I felt uneasy about what I might find. His past was literally a foreign country. If I did now and then venture a question, he would comically exaggerate his usual brow-furrowing, then growl and pounce at me, shooing me away from the thing he didn't want to talk about, or running at me in a slightly manic way, the way he ran at a cat if he saw one in the garden.