Sunday, 29 May 2011

We're still here...

This was a piece that I wrote last night on returning from a Battle of Britain veteran’s signing event held in Farnborough. Everyone can draw their own inspiration from the valiance of our airmen throughout the second world war, with their stories of heroism, courage and camaraderie. Harking back to a time when the best of British was not just a catchy phrase thought up by an advertising man to sell cheap sausages, but when it genuinely did reflect a ‘better’ time of ideals and upheld virtues. Of the courage of a man ready to get into the cockpit of a plane, maybe never to come back to earth, ready to sacrifice his life. This is what still strikes and inspires me, because for me it has a parallel to the short butterfly life of the cancer sufferer, whether the person lives for six months or years, they blossom into life then fade away in memory. It is men like Tom that give me strength, a trait that these men possess so strongly beneath their now frail exteriors.

An old man sits alone at a table in a room now empty, which just minutes ago had reverberated to multiple voices, outstretched hands and looks of hero worship. But certainly this man would never call himself a hero, to do so would seem wrong, to discredit those whose voices can no longer be heard – whether extinguished long ago in his distant memory, or in the recent years of old age, it matters not. The brotherhood of service was then, is still now, as his elderly colleagues shuffle off for a well-deserved lunch and rest.

As he sits in that bare moment I want to go over to talk, to put into action that day, that moment, that I’ve dreamt so long of. But here, in a meeting room at a hotel next to a busy dual carriageway I stand rooted to the spot. Has the morning’s work of signing the endless conveyor belt of books and posters thrust his way exhausted the energy of an old man, or has it brought back those memories that seem so vivid, so real, so not of seventy years ago? In the same way that I can feel the visceral emotion of the lasers and the smoke of the warehouse balcony, the confusion of the club, can he still remember the roar of cannon, smell of glycol, and the taste of fear?

Like a line of ghosts, they are just still present in our world, just still faintly visible to the eye. So frail, so hard to hear, so hard to reach out to; What can I ask, what can I say? Even now I don’t know what would have been right. I wish that the right words had been there for me to say, but they weren’t. But now I can: Thank you Tom, Geoffrey, Peter, William, Bill, Bob, Nigel and Tony. I’m glad I met you, you are there for me when the days are dark.

People often tell me that I’m brave, I don’t know why. “I’m not brave, I’m just trying to stay alive” is what I always say, like something heard whispered from a ghost passing by…

Wing Commander Tom Neil, DFC, AFC - who flew Hurricanes with 249 Squadron
from North Weald during the Battle of Britain. His book "Gunbutton to Fire" is a
classic of its type, as is Tom himself. A kind-hearted and noble man who I count
myself lucky to have met. This picture is copyright of The Independent website.


  1. Hi Jonathan. Thanks for the article. Really well put. I always make it a point to think and pray for those fallen and still fighting.
    You are still in my thoughts and prayers too.
    Love from
    Clare xxxx

  2. Thanks Clare, I'm glad that you enjoyed it. It was a hard one to write, one where I reviewed every word and phrase - to challenge what stayed in, what was said and what was not. Have a good weekend.

  3. this is beautiful Jonathan - thank you x