You haven’t asked me, but if you did, I would probably classify myself as coming from the traditional, reserved, stiff upper lip-style school of Englishman. Not quite incapable of emotion or sentiment but, being possessed of huge stocks of control, the sort of chap who would not easily share his with others. A man who – finding feelings of temporary inward strain, stress, anguish, or weakness sneaking up on him – would reach for the adage ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’ and then, without thinking, look down upon others who perhaps discovered they were less able to cope.
Different people anticipate grief, and then grieve, in different ways – and each much choose his or her own, that is, the one that ‘works’ for them. Because life has to go on – and indeed, life does go on, however hard an individual may find it.
Many years ago, when my first wife was dying, family emotions were naturally near the surface. On the occasions I found myself alone with my thoughts – and sometimes people were so attentive that I deliberately had to make time for this – I was instinctively prepared for any reaction I might have. Whenever my emotions got the better of me, I didn’t cry in the accepted sense – instead I tended to be overtaken by huge, raking, sobs. Sometimes these continued for less than a minute, sometimes much longer – sometimes accompanied by tears and sometimes not. And then suddenly I was ‘back to normal’, i.e. in control of myself again, but feeling a welcome sense of both exhaustion and relief at having let out that inner pain.
In more recent times, it seems that my eyes moisten more often than they used to – and often for unexpected reasons, in which category I would include situations, images, video footage and passages in books that twenty or thirty years ago would not have affected me at all.
They say that Winston Churchill was a frequent and wholly unabashed blubber. I’m not quite on that level, but I’m comfortable with believing that I know where he was coming from.
Last night (Christmas Eve) I watched a ‘Catch-up TV’ version of ITV’s Gary Barlow: Journey to Afghanistan, a 49-minute documentary covering the Take That singer’s recent trip to play a concert for the troops at Camp Bastion in Helmand province. I’m not a Gary Barlow – or indeed X-Factor – fan, but I’d read a laudatory review of it in the Daily Telegraph and deliberately sought it out.
It made terrific television, not least because it artfully disguised what I suspect must have been advance ‘set-up’ situations – e.g. the band of the Royal Artillery just happening to be visiting the camp at the same time, and Barlow seeking out a number of musically or vocally talented military personnel to take part in the concert – as being happy products of random good fortune and improvisation.
Barlow came across as a surprisingly well-grounded fellow – no doubt happy to be famous, but simultaneously totally without airs and graces. His sense of awe at the purpose and scale of Camp Bastion – which spans an area the size of Reading – was genuine, his respect for the military personnel he met evident in every conversation.
Amongst those he enlisted to join his concert band were a 45-year old plumber who, leaving his wife and kids behind, had volunteered to serve as a heavy vehicle driver and could strum a guitar; a 21-year old medic who had joined up at 17 “because I wanted to serve my country”, moving described the first casualty he ever had to assess – an Afghan kid who’d stepped on a mine playing soccer and lost three limbs – and then turned out to have a superb voice to go with his boy band looks; and a rangy blonde female RAF officer in her twenties, in charge of all helicopter maintenance, whose task it became to sing a couple of lines solo in a rendition of the Hollies’ hit He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.
The finale – the concert itself – was fittingly impressive and turned the moisture in my eyes into torrents streaming down my cheeks. In a good way. Faced with a 1,000-strong sea of happy, purposeful, faces of both genders dressed in camouflage, all aching to have a good time, Barlow and his team went straight for the jugular with anthems such as Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are and The Proclaimers’ I Would Walk 500 Miles and unerringly hit the bull’s eye.
As the camera panned around the audience, punctuated with men and women from all three services waving at the camera, mouthing greetings to loved ones and/or holding up messages for their families, I felt myself ‘going’ and was comfortable and happy doing it.
Barlow concluded the concert with a sing-along version of Michale Buble’s Home, with its ‘Let me go home’ refrain that inevitably raised the roof … and then, after a solo visit to place a wreath on the memorial to the dead the following morning, Barlow walked out of shot and the credits rolled without celebration or ceremony.
What set me off was being exposed to a slice of the life of those young men and women, some 4000 miles away in Afghanistan. From the safety of my sofa-anchored 62 year old body, I marvelled at, and envied, their quiet sense of confidence, mission – and humility.
In contrast, when I was twenty-one, I had a mental age of about thirteen.
As the programme concluded, I turned to the others in the room and mumbled something to the effect it should be compulsory viewing for all drifting British layabouts and how seeing such servicemen and women “makes you feel you’ve completely wasted your own life”.
I could never have been a soldier but, at the moment I uttered those words, my sentiment was genuine.