Yesterday my brothers and I met with my father and RF, a former public school chum of his (we’re talking the early 1940s here), for one of our twice-a-year group lunches. On this occasion, like the last, we came together at a superior Italian restaurant close to World’s End pub on New Kings Road.
The food was delicious and the company entertaining. Horse racing came to the fore as a topic because RF and his family had just bought a rather expensive (in my terms) nag, now placed with one of the country’s top trainers.
However, my intention here is not a ‘match report’ on our lunch, save in one respect.
After the bill had been paid, and we were almost at the point of departing, somehow the subject of a wartime colleague of RF’s came up.
This character was a bit of a maverick – court-martialled twice in the Navy – but had then been recruited for the Special Boat Squadron (‘SBS’) and thereafter had a ‘very good’ WW2 on active service, sometimes operating behind enemy lines, twice being captured and nearly killed.
I then asked whether he (RF) had ever come across Paddy Mayne, the legendary (Northern) Irish SAS officer who won the DSO and three bars in WW2 and was controversially denied a Victoria Cross, apparently because of his feisty anti-Establishment nature.
RF responded in the negative, but then made passing throwaway reference to the time he personally spent 18 weeks behind the lines in Greece on secret missions.
This revelation was too good to miss.
We spent another quarter of an hour sitting at our table, getting RF to spill the beans about his SOE-type work.
It had to be rather dragged out of him but it was fascinating. In the midst of one tale, his eyes moistened as he told of how his group had left a tiny village in the hills to embark upon a mission to destroy an electrical station, only to find, when they returned, that 18 villagers had been summarily executed for helping them.
He mentioned that his aforementioned SBS pal, one of the group, a Greek-speaker, was so impressive and charismatic that it was not unknown for local partisans to walk for five days, evading the Germans as they did … and afterwards set off to walk back home again … just to be able to say they had met him.
It occurred to me overnight that we must all engage our elders and betters in conversations about their pasts.
In sixty years of knowing RF, I had no previous knowledge that he had ever worked with special services, or had seen active service behind enemy lines.