Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Friends ask if one suffers withdrawal symptoms from newspaper-editing. Yet if one is a writer, there is no greater joy than to write. After an interval of 16 years, I am once again travelling the world, interviewing veterans for a book about the second world war. I love sitting in old men's homes, listening to their stories of experiences mercifully beyond the compass of anything our generation has known. The Russians talk wonderfully, but it is dismaying to see how poor they are. Old soldiers have a black jest: `Maybe it would be better if the fascists had won the war, and now we might all be living like the Germans.' In Germany, I was sorry to see old Waffen SS men displaying a defiant assertiveness which they would not have dared to expose when I last met their kind, 20 years ago. In New York, I spent an extraordinary three hours last week with a Jewish woman who had survived Ravensbriick. A taxi was supposed to collect me afterwards, to catch a flight to London. It was very late. I grew nervous. `Relax!' my hostess cried. `Don't worry about it! It doesn't matter. When you have been in a death camp, you realise how unimportant it is to miss an aeroplane.'

On Saturday, on the same quest for my book, I saw an 82-year-old British doctor, who was medical officer to a parachute battalion. I thought I had heard every kind of war story, but I was astonished by one of his memories, which is undoubtedly authentic. In January 1945, his unit had been fighting for three days in a Belgian village, unable to dislodge a Tiger tank fiercely defended by panzergrenadiers. The doctor was treating a casualty when his sergeant reported that there were five badly wounded men in a house on the front line, whom he was going to get out. Preoccupied, the doctor nodded assent. On their front, the Germans usually respected the red cross. The chaplain said he would go too. The two men drove their ambulance up the main street. Firing died away. As the British began to load stretchers, however, with a roar the huge Tiger careered up the street and stopped in front of them. The hatch opened. The German commander appeared. He wagged an admonitory finger and observed in fluent English, `This time, I let you do it. Next time - I shoot!' The hatch clanged down. The tank disappeared back up the street. In daily journalism, one often questions whether what one is doing is worthwhile. I suffer no such doubts, recording the memories of the wartime generation.

It must be ten years since I filled up a car at an American gas station. After doing so last week. I paid a bill for just $12 after driving 300 miles. In principle, I support high fuel-duty. Since we must pay taxes, forking out steeply for using a car seems as fair an impost as any. In principle, I agree that America's cheap fuel policy is shockingly unkind to the environment. But gosh, that bill was a nice surprise.

Breakfast has always been the best meal America offers, but it seems to be suffering a decline. Having eaten cardboard waffles and tasteless fried eggs in big cities and small, at hotels and short-order diners, I was disappointed. Yet maybe the problem is just that I am older. As a very young man living nomadically in America, I ate ravenously and indiscriminately. …

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