Psychologist and author Alan Kennedy was researching wartime conditions in Vichy France for his fourth novel Lucy when he remembered that there was something he wanted to know about the bombing of Coventry in November 1940. Did Winston Churchill have advance warning of the raid? Could he have saved the city at the cost of alerting the enemy that their Enigma code had been broken?
All of us, I’m sure, will have had the experience being led astray from our main path of research along some elusive but compelling byway which, startlingly often, turns out to be relevant in some way we could not possibly have anticipated. Alan Kennedy was born in the West Midlands, about thirty miles from Coventry. He was a baby in his cot at the time of the bombing: his father left for work every day - often at night- but what did he do? Why wasn't he in uniform? His mother was terrified for the rest of her life by the sound of the air raid siren. Why? Anyone affected by bombing would have at least a passing interest in knowing whether it had been preventable. Kennedy’s research, subsequently published in his “autobiographical biography” Oscar & Lucy, records more complex answers.
|Hut 3, Bletchley Park|
Kennedy was startled. He had known Oscar Oeser, he realised. Oeser had been “The Prof” who had given him his first academic job as a psychology tutor in Melbourne in the 1960s. The Prof was abrupt, reclusive, frightening. A difficult colleague, he was generally disliked. No one had any idea that he had been a wartime Wing Commander with such essential responsibility. Lucy lay abandoned as Kennedy unearthed an extraordinary story of wartime and post-war achievement which Oeser had never mentioned.
|AK and "The Prof "in Melbourne|
|AK in Dundee: Professor of psychology, |
novelist, biographer, memory expert
Oscar & Lucy is a fascinating brief biography. That’s its most obvious level. The secondary, auto-biographical, elements are also far more subtle than mere co-incidences of academic tenure. Those questions Kennedy had asked himself as a child about his father’s wartime experience give an unexpected emotional urgency to the discovering of Oeser’s never-mentioned career. The style is approachable and readable even when the material is complex. There's plenty of illuminating comment on the development of psychology as an academic discipline. The additional aspect that, for me, makes this book outstanding is Kennedy’s understanding of memory. He presents it as a personal construct, intrinsically fallible, defined by gaps and stabilised only by the organising power of story and the larger archetypal themes called schema.
Oscar Oeser refused to make a story out of his memories. Apart from the single letter to Jean Howard, written in 1975, there is no evidence that he ever talked about his work with Ultra – or his equally fascinating post-war role in the de-Nazification of Germany. It’s possible that this degree of suppression – admirable in so many ways (and anyway necessary for a long while under the Official Secrets Act) – had a negative effect on his behaviour and may have soured his relationship with others – at least among his academic colleagues. Kennedy’s father never told his story either -- and this wasn't easy for his son to understand.
In my life the experience of dementia adds a twist. My mother lived in London as soon as she was old enough to do war work. She was a very junior filing clerk in a branch of the Foreign Office and endured the period of V1 and V2 bombs. She took the obligation of secrecy seriously and lived for years without mentioning her wartime experiences -- as did so many of her generation. Then, when she watched the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad in 2003 her reaction was instinctive and horrified. She wrote letters and poems of protest, marched, harangued everyone with whom she came into contact and accused any of us who did not immediate equate Tony Blair with Adolf Hitler of being Nazi sympathisers. The least expression of doubt: about Saddam Hussein’s treatment of the Kurds, for instance, was liable to provoke hysterical abuse. No matter that her oldest brother and first cousin had flown WW2 bombing missions over Germany, the Pandora’s box of emotional memory was opened, her cognitive defences were beginning to crumble and there was no possibility of neutrality or historical discussion. “Don’t mention the war” became the family mantra for survival.
|Baghdad, March 2003|
It’s never been an adequate strategy. The impact of WW2 on mum’s life was traumatic for so many reasons. She’s a highly sensitive, imaginative and damaged person and, when she needs to talk about The War we have finally learned to sit tight, take a deep breath and agree. It’s incredibly hard not to question or correct as facts and chronologies become increasingly confused and happenings ever more implausible and dreamlike. First and Second World Wars jumble together and most recently she has described herself as vividly present on phantasmagoric battlefields surrounded by the dead. Other families of people with dementia will recognise the activity of confabulation where complex narrative accounts of “untrue” events are related with an urgency and emotional passion that seems to increase the further the story moves from verifiable happenings. The wilder the story the more perilous it is for the listener to make any unguarded comment. We have to accept that – at the moment of telling – these memories are “true”. As Alan Kennedy remarks “We are the authors of ourselves.”
I was reading Oscar & Lucy as I stayed with my mother after the disaster of her new year. In the early hours of Jan 1st she entered a state of near delirium, smashing crockery, tearing down the curtains, being sick into the pot-plants. She was catatonic the next day and had no recollection of what had happened or why. We hadn’t been very far away and had been woken by the dog leaping onto my partner’s pillow, terrified by the incessant bang, crackle and whoosh of the modern multi-shot fireworks. What people with dementia cannot explain in words, they express through their behaviour. There would be such a great mercy in forgetting if it wasn’t for these uncontrollable hazards of reminding.