Don't Mention the War by Julia Jones

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?
Coventry, November 1940

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
Towards the end of a long and apparently unproductive search, Kennedy found a quoted letter sent by a Wing Commander Oscar Oeser to a former intelligence officer and colleague, Jean Howard. Oeser had been the Section Head of Hut 3 at Bletchley Park, responsible for processing the intercepted Luftwaffe messages. His job was to translate each decoded text from German into English, assess its importance, relate it to other messages and pass it on, quickly. In his letter to Jean Howard he remembered that the code word from the messages foreshadowing the large-scale raid had been REGENSCHIRM.  His first assumption had been that the target might be Birmingham but Air Intelligence had decided that London was more likely. On the night of the raid Oeser had been on leave, staying with friends in Campbridge. He told Howard how sick he had felt as he listened to the waves of bombers heading towards the West Midlands but he could say nothing to his friends to explain his distress.

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
Oeser’s academic career was almost equally interesting. Oeser, who had been born in Pretoria to German Jewish parents, was a physics graduate who had earned his first doctorate as a research psychologist in early 1930s Germany, investigating synaesthesia. His supervisor, Erich Jaensch, was a specialist in eidetic imagery who, chillingly, used the results of his research to underpin Nazi theories of race: “unbridled generalisations on a totally insufficient statistical basis”, as Oeser later dismissed it. He left Germany soon as his doctorate was obtained then studied for three years at Trinity College Cambridge, centre of mathematical brilliance and unsuspected Soviet spies. It proved an equally awkward ambiance for a pioneering experimental psychologist and Oeser eventually escaped to Dundee (then a constituent college of St Andrew’s University) where he led a project to research the psychological effects of deprivation.

AK in Dundee: Professor of psychology,
novelist, biographer, memory expert
Alan Kennedy is currently emeritus professor of psychology at Dundee University. He arrived there in 1965, after his time at Melbourne, quite unaware of the fact that it had been Oeser’s influence that had got him the post.  Kennedy had begun his career as a researcher into memory. His PhD thesis was on forgetting – though now, he says, he wishes he had written it on “reminding” (such a good word) and his initial interview with The Prof for that first job in Melbourne had touched on topics such as memory loss due to shell-shock. It’s a shame (thinks this reader) that they didn’t continue the conversation on towards memory suppression, diversion and/or sublimation.

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.

The bomb that hit the Guards Chapel, London 1944.
My mother was having a lazy morning in her flat in St James's. She heard the bomb approaching and hid under her bed. Relief  at her escape turned to deep sadness, and anger, when she learned that people she knew and parents of close friends were in the chapel and were killed
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.

Baghdad, 2003


Susan Price said…
Julia, this is so beautiful and moving, and covers so much, I am full of admiration. Thank you.
Wendy H. Jones said…
What a beautiful account. This really touched me. I live in Dundee and the link is fascinating. Thank you for sharing something so interesting and, ultimately, personal
Moving and disturbing, Julia. I think the effects of long buried memories on people with dementia are poorly understood. We need more accounts like yours. A friend of ours finally succumbed to dementia in her nineties and was consigned to the worst possible nursing home. I remember visiting her when she had been placed in the usual hideous circle to tick the 'socialisation' box and she seemed utterly terrified of where she was, clutching at my hand, pointing out people who were not to be trusted and people who were threatening her. Since we were neither relatives nor even close friends, there was little I could do except try to comfort her and ask the staff to attend to her. After her death, I discovered from other people who had visited her that she had often responded like this to this ghastly version of circle time. Only at her funeral did we realise that she had been a spy in occupied France. One very brave lady, consigned by an appalling care system to spend her last weeks thinking that she had been outed and was confronting the enemy. What she really needed was simple and easy enough, the equivalent of the place where she had spent her last lucid years: a quiet room, a little music, a few papers to work at, tea and toast and the occasional visitor with chocolate or flowers, which she loved. Nobody at all, charged with her care, seemed to show an ounce of imagination. It hurts me still to think about it, and just how many people must be suffering in similar ways.
Bill Kirton said…
I'll just echo the others (as usual); this is so beautiful, studied, thoughtful. Also, despite the awfulness - for her and you - of the things your mother is going through, it maintains a calmness and invites a reasoned, balanced consideration of the processes of memory and the mysterious work of 'reminding'. Thanks, Julia.
julia jones said…
You are completely right Catherine -- this is a traumatised generation (potentially). A dear older friend of my mother's - the gentlest, loveliest violin teacher you could imagine -- made extraordinary attempts to kill his carers and escape when he was being moved from place to place. He'd been a Japanese pow, building bridge of River Kwai and was one of only two survivors from entire regiment (might have wrong term there). Fortunately, in his case he was calmed when he (and his violin) was in a secure mental health unit & friends from outside came regularly once a week to play quartetes with him

It's not only the wartime survivors who can suffer so disproportionately when dementia both removes their defences and their means of articulate expression -- abuse victims may also show extreme distress through their behaviour. However I do think there is more understanding (or wilingness to understand) in many places. Cally Philips,ages ago recommended me a lovely book by a consultant psychiatrist called (from memory) And still the music plays. Exactly the sort of personal insights and adjustments you woudl like to have seen in the cases you mention. Just before Christmas I was invited to a conference at Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport, which was adopting Johns Campaign and between each session or visiting speaker, the deputy chief nurse read out extracts from this book to help us all think more imaginatively and compassionately.
There are some WONDERFUL dementia specialist nurses, amid the chaos. Just not enough nearly of them

(Am about to be putting up some good examples from Ayrshire oimn the4 JC website soon. it CAN be done)
Jan Needle said…
Thank you Julia.
Mari Biella said…
I can't add much to the other comments, Julia, but thank you for writing this honest, moving, calm account.
Sandra Horn said…
A brilliant and very moving post.Thank you, Julia.
julia jones said…
I feel grateful for the opportunity, once a month, for having this literary context to reflect on a phase of life which will pass, I know. Then how will it be? what will come next? Thank heavens for books that give a different slant and for friends with whom one can 'talk' in a different way
Kathleen Jones said…
I can only echo what others have said, Julia. A moving and profound post.
Lydia Bennet said…
Stunningly revealing and almost shockingly honest about your personal journey witnessing a 'deminding' if it could be called that. People with dementia may invent complex narratives to fill gaps they are aware of in some way, I think. Sometimes they 'borrow' stories they hear or see elsewhere. Early trauma can come back with other powerful early memories. Also our more primitive and longer surviving 'reptile brains' can respond to the feeling of something wrong, untrustworthy, something frightening, with aggression, drawing on long ago experiences (this is what happens when stroke victims can only swear, not speak otherwise, at first - defence mechanism of a damaged brain trying to defend itself but unable to identify the threat and the enemy). Keeping secrets is very stressful, but it's the price we and particularly the war generations paid for survival and moving on, and it may be that the wheel will turn and keeping the stiff upper lip buttoned to the other one will once more be the 'expert' advice. A very moving account Julia, and so far-ranging, as you work so tirelessly to 'keep mum.'
Dennis Hamley said…
Late to this, as usual. An aamazing, reverberating post, Julia, which I'd comment on at length if I wasn't using up someone else's data. Wonderful about WW2, Coventry and Alzheimers, held together as a whole perfectly.

sfin1000 said…
PTSD incarnate.
unknown said…
Sign its time for memory care facility Many families struggle to determine the best time to transition to memory care. Still, just like how particular warning signs can forewarn a cardiac arrest, dementia or Alzheimer’s will reveal symptoms that can emphasize the presence of a progressive cognitive disorder. It’s understandable considering that dementia is a progressive condition, which means spotting the perfect time while multiple symptoms uncover may not be easy.

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