Dulce et decorum erat

 In Life Junctions, Vignettes
Old Larnaca Bus

A sudden change can make even the most familiar objects unfamiliar, like this old bus dumped in a field near Larnaca, Cyprus. My experience in Deal on the day of the bomb led me to revise my old visions.

When the Major confiscated the Evening Standard that began the end of my career. It was 8am in the Cyprus office where we all worked. Saturday. I had sent the paper down the line of my colleagues, who read it in hushed horror, for few listened to the radio before we began work at 7am. I’d just arrived back in time for work via the Austrian Airlines flight to Larnaca, and so carried that rare thing: a current British newspaper. In Cyprus in 1989, long before satellite tv or internet existed, the British tv news arrived on video once a week.

The Major walked in, saw the Evening Standard and confiscated it, leaving the words ‘bad for morale’ fading in the gloom. I wondered who he thought he was but, then, he was a Major.

When you live abroad you carry in your mind a stylised vision of the place you’re from. For some it’s a bitter vision; for others romanticised. Mine, reinforced by being abroad in part to protect that vision, was the latter. After all, as the expression has it:

“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” (1)

Friday had perturbed the vision I carried, of a quiet old and old-fashioned seaside town. Of proud coal-miners and the coal smoke that drifted over the town. Of proud military bands whose music drifted over the town: ‘A Lincolnshire Poacher’ and military marches. Of family and friends.

Friday was the last day of a week’s holiday home from Cyprus. Just after breakfast came the popping boom sound that suddenly unsettled: too loud for a car crash; unlikely to be a gas explosion.

The sirens revealed its extent soon enough. Both fire engines from Deal, immediate and close by. Then the small town’s ambulances and police cars. Minutes later came sirens on the road from Sandwich. A few more minutes and sirens drifted in more faintly on the road from Dover. A bomb at the barracks.

The house was familiar and quiet. The breakfast show interrupted itself with news of an explosion in unfamiliar Deal. Men killed and injured, it said.

I could volunteer my services at the scene and perhaps justify being absent without leave. Or I could catch my Austrian Airlines flight to Larnaca in a few hours and do my duty: dulce et decorum erat (2). I packed and left.

As we drove past, towers of cameras were already rising from Walmer’s grassy green, peering into the site. Platoons of tv people stood rehearsing pieces to camera for teatime bulletins around the world.

By the time I reached Heathrow, the Evening Standards shouted the event from every newsstand. I wondered why I was travelling to a distant garrison when my own home was so evidently threatened by political violence. My reward for doing my duty, pointless as that already seemed to me, was to have the paper confiscated. I was not permitted to hold a crumpled connection with the remains of my former vision.

I resigned a few tricky months later, having decided it is better, as a man, to stare reality straight in the eye than pretend it doesn’t exist for the sake of ‘morale’ and convenience. I set out on a new, unfamiliar path that has led to half a lifetime of rich experiences.

Eleven men were killed, 21 injured. The bombers were never caught. After a decent interval had elapsed, the government sold the barracks to property developers.

In happier times, here is the Royal Marine Band at Deal, on the end credits of the film ‘Thunderbirds are Go’ (1966). Marvel at the music and the crisp drill.


Goldfinch Line

This post is part of the Life Junction series. Each part seeks to expand from a vivid fragment into a more general observation about values, in a way that might help the reader draw positive conclusions from events in their own life.

  1. The Shellscrape (Resolution & Temptation)
  2. Show Salute (Opportunity & Disruption)
  3. Dulce et Decorum Erat (Freedom & Confinement)
  4. Dancing on Fortress Walls (Honesty & Illusion)
  5. Inheriting a Relic (Vitality & Mortality)
  6. Karachi Hotel (Empathy & Judgmentalism)
  7. The Thunderclap (Courage & Fear)
  8. You need a bomb under your bed to get you up (Agency & Fatalism)
  9. On Meditation (Mindfulness & Confusion)
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