AS the Mandela typhoon started to whip up a storm we dozen or so gathered at Putney Vale to cremate Hans. The light was just beginning to fade as the pretentious undertaker in his top hat and oh so solemn crew carried the coffin into the chapel.
Before us ,in the adjoining chapel, a much larger congregation were doing the same for Tony Russell, 56 from Battersea. I talked to some of the other congregation before our event and couldn’t work out whether he had been a gangster, publican or just a good ol’ boy. Whatever, he was mighty popular ,when I asked if he had been a smoker and drinker like most of his pals,my new friend gave me an old fashioned look and said in deep Glasgow, Nay more than the rest o’ us.
And so we said good bye to Hans. This family gathered one more time. Jon presided, Vivien read a poem, I said a few words, Anna sang, Jane wept and we listed to Dietrich sing “Lily Marlene.” It went well. Most came back for some bubbly, tea and cake and that also went better than expected. This was a family with very low expectations.
But of course we weren’t just saying goodbye to Hans but to the Golden Generation. The generation which was brought up in the depression, fought and won the war, and built a world of relative peace and security in which we have prospered. So I remembered my various “fathers”.
Dick Thompson. My legal father. Brought up in a modest Brixton terrace. His father a book keeper who played the piano for silent movies. Remarkably he and his three siblings all went to university before the war. Oxford was where he met my mother. During the war having failed to become a pilot he was a major in the Royal Signals. He then became a serious member of the legal establishment being awarded a CBE for his work as Registrar of the Court of Criminal Appeal. He always felt he was cheated of a knighthood by the humiliation the Birmingham Seven meted out on the legal system. His second marriage was not happy.
Karel Bala. My biological father. His family were successful printers and property owners.A Czech Jew who because of his political affiliations left Prague and his family before the Nazis invaded.. They perished in the Holocaust. He had an honourable war being awarded a medal for valour. After serving in the Czech embassy in Ottowa he not only successfully remarried but became a vice president of Alcan and a mainstay of the Czech community in Canada.
Mike Knowland. My father in law. The youngest of six brothers he took over the family wine and pub business. During the war he was major in the Royal Artillery and was one of the first Britons to reach the Death Camps. He ran the business until the seventies when it was sold. A scratch golfer,a gentleman and one of the last people I knew who had special gloves for driving.
And Hans,my stepfather whose story I have told before. I only wept for Dick. I had been drinking but long before I found out about Karel, his indifference to my children suggested there was no blood connection.
By brooks too wide for leaping/The light footed lads are laid/The rose lipped maids lie sleeping/In fields where roses fade.