The Surly Bonds that Bind Us
Even in the darkest of times our basic humanity breaks through...
Southampton College, South Meeting Room
To the untrained eye, the man walking across the small stage carried an air of quiescent unworthiness rather than one of significance. As he walked people turned to stare, wondering and whispering quietly as they tried to remember where they had seen him before. Yet not only were the attendees ignorant as to his identity they were equally unaware of why exactly they had been invited (bribed really given the free booze) to the event in the first place.
Placing a small notebook on the podium, the unknown man straightened himself as though preparing to countenance a firing squad before reaching with shaking hand to switch on the microphone.
“Hello. My name is Eoin Archer and I’m pretty sure that no one here has any idea of who I am, or why I am standing here in some discomfort speaking to you.”
Archer paused, and carefully picked up the small black notebook, that of the type that is all the rage these days, before holding it up for everyone to see. What was clearly obvious was that it was definitively not a modernist Moleskin, but something else entirely.
“I’d like to start today by reading some selected entries in this journal, which belonged to my grandfather, who was also named Eoin Archer. The entries I am going to read to you were made during 1940, both before and during the Battle of Britain while my grandfather flew Hurricanes in 238 Squadron. This journal is his record of that time.”
Archer placed the journal on the podium, plopped reading glasses low on his nose, and as though preparing to read the gospel in church opened the notebook reverently to a pre-selected page. He looked up at the crowd of people, all now singularly focused on him, before pausing and taking a deep breath.
1 August, 1940
Joined 238 Squadron at Middle-Wallop today. Much to my surprise the Squadron is a composite mix of Poles, Czechs and Englishmen. I’m not sure how I feel welcoming the Poles and Czechs into the fight, but if they can do the job then I guess they are as good as anyone else. I do wish they spoke some of the Queens English though. It’s going to be tough fighting with them if we can’t speak on the R/T.
13 August, 1940
(This was Adlertag, or the formal start of the Battle of Britain)
Today started as a day unlike any other. It is only 09:00hrs as I write these words, and already we’ve seen more enemy airplanes over East Anglia than at any time previously. The very existence of our country is at stake and today it became apparent that the Jerries are well intent on taking it from us. I think that today began our war for survival, and the good news is that I consider my reservations about the foreigners at my side to have been completely disproven. Our island may not be theirs, but the Czechs and Poles are defending it with a ferocity and intensity and fearlessness that I cannot comprehend.
06:15hrs- We scrambled to our Hurries just after first light, and by 06:30hrs we were in a giant furball that lasted only ten minutes or so, but left me panting for breath in my mask, my feet dancing on the rudder pedals and my body shaking uncontrollably when it was over. I don’t know if it was fear, adrenaline, or a desire to survive, but my hands still shake as I write this. I got a long burst into a 111 over Maidstone, sending it down in flames for my second kill before I took a good round of hits from a 109 that got me on a high-deflection shot through my cowling and front cockpit. Jerry would have had me for his breakfast had he not been fiercely shooed away by the Pole Janacek to my right.
It is innocuous how the rhythmic tapping of molten metal passing through your engine, your fuel tank or your body sounds exactly like the very pleasant sound of raindrops on a tin roof. If the fact of it weren’t so utterly terrifying the sound would be almost lulling to the aviator gasping for air as he turns and twists two miles above the surface of the earth, which he might have been wise to remain firmly attached to. I don’t know how this war ends for me, but I suspect the sweet eloquence of a bracing rain on the roof will herald my departure if that time eventually comes.
19:00hrs- We are done for today. Jerry came back this afternoon, again in force, and bombed Southampton Yards. We tried to get through to the bombers, but their escorts were too plentiful and fierce. A Hurricane is no match for an ME-109 and it was all I could do to stay out of their claws and return in one piece, much less getting to a bomber and shooting it down. My Hurrie got whacked again by at least two bursts, but I was one of the lucky ones. We lost three of our eighteen squadron-mates today, and all three were Poles who died fiercely engaging the Germans with everything they had. Seaborne is badly burned and out of action. If this keeps up 238 Squadron will be out of business in four days! Whatever be the outcome I pray I do not burn like Seaborne, but with that fuel tank right in front of me it seems pretty likely.
1 September, 1940
Here we sit in quiescent St. Eval, about as far from the action as is possible. This is probably a good thing for us since of our allotment of eighteen Hurricanes we have only eleven in total left, and of those only four operational. It would be a happy German indeed who would stumble on our motley crew. Flight Lt. Hughes and I are the only original members of 238 Squadron left, but our new Polish and Czech friends provide good company. I never imagined I could be so close with someone who wasn’t an Englishman.
11 September, 1940
I am now officially the old man and the only original member of 238 Squadron remaining. Flight Lieutenant Hughes was shot down and killed attacking JU-88s over Tunbridge Wells this morning, along with two other Hurricanes from our squadron. At least Bledsoe was able to bail out and is back with the squadron tonight. I can’t help but think my turn is next. There is nothing noble in this endeavour but the very survival of England. I pray to God my comrades in arms prevail, whether with or without me.
Archer quietly eased the diary closed and placed it on the podium.
“That entry, from September 11, would be his last. My grandfather was killed near Middle-Wallop on September 15th when he hit a tree during a low-level dogfight and was unable to successfully bail out of his mortally stricken airplane. Thankfully, for him at least, his wish was granted and he was not burned when he died.
As a child I spent some years in America, where a famous radio host would end his broadcast by saying “and that’s the rest of the story…”
Here’s the rest of my grandfather’s story:”
Archer pulled a folded sheet of yellowed paper out of the back of the diary.
“This is a letter from my grandfather Eoin to my father.”
1 August, 1940
My Dearest Tommy,
If you are reading this letter than you already know that I am no longer present in your life. Since you are only a wee 6-months old on the day I am writing this I am fairly certain you will only know me as the father you never met. This makes me unbearably sad, but I trust that the sacrifice I have made will insure that the great and indomitable country I grew up in will remain intact and will provide you with opportunity and a home for the duration of your life.
Since this letter may be the only time I will speak directly to you in the future I want to tell you that your birth was the happiest day of my life, even above the day I married your mom. I have lived a short but full life with only one regret- that I will not be around to see you grow into a man.
As you know, neither your mum nor I are from wealthy stock, nonetheless I have been able to take my family’s inheritance and provide for both you and your mom if I do not survive the coming firestorm of war. For you, and given the turbulent circumstances we face in the world today, I have converted the inheritance into 591 individual one-ounce gold ingots worth approximately 5,000 pounds. If the war doesn’t go well for England the gold will still be worth something in the future. It’s not a lot to leave for you and I wish it was more, but it should be enough to see you off to a good start.
You will never hear me say the words, so let me say them here: Never was a boy more loved by his mum and dad than you upon entering into the world. Every second I spent with you was filled with a lifetime of love and each one will accompany me until my end is here.
All my love,
Archer’s voice was trembling. He folded the letter away carefully before stiffening and continuing to his now rapt audience.
“As it turns out my dad got that letter, this diary, and a 36 pound box of gold on his 18th birthday. Yet for reasons I don’t know, the box was placed in the attic of his modest home, where it remained until last year after his death. In it I found his letter, the diary, and the 591 gold ingots, just as they had been left by my grandfather roughly 80 years ago. Since I discovered them they have been waiting for me to figure out what to do with them.
All of which brings me to why I am standing in front of you today.
It was five years ago almost to the day that England voted to leave the EU, primarily over concerns or fears of the “foreigners” among us. What my grandfather teaches us is that the UK, and everyone who lives here, can contribute, participate and even influence our country in important ways.
As you heard- he started like many of you- thinking that the “other” would be the end of him. What he learned instead is what I am hoping we will all learn, namely that “the other” doesn’t threaten our way of life, they enrich it and make it possible. The “other” in my grandfather’s squadron kept him alive on more than one occasion, and the “others” bled and died, just like he eventually did fighting alongside them.
I am here today to announce that my grandfather’s gift is being used to found a new college in his name here at Southampton, over which he once flew in combat. The college will be specifically tasked with fighting nationalism and authoritarianism through education and public engagement, and his wisdom will hopefully come full circle as a result.
I am asking you here to join me in funding this noble endeavour by committing your own resources to match the £800,000 already contributed by my grandfather.”
Archer paused, quietly picked up his papers and left the stage and the silent room, completely unaware that he had transmogrified in plain sight into something worthy in the minds of the party attendees.
Attendees who were not silent for long. When the next day’s Southampton Daily News went online the lead story said it all: New College in Humanities to get £5 million in Funding from Local Supporters and Battle of Britain Hero.