Adam Bird

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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Lesson in History

Buttes New British Cemetery

For several years, mainly whilst drinking in the British Legion Club before Gillingham home games, my Dad, my friends and I would talk about visiting France or Belgium to tour some of the battlefields and visit the cemeteries of the fallen during World War One. We talked about Belgian beer and how we might be able to combine the two for a weekend of history, culture and light entertainment. But after talking about it once too many times, a decisive action was required and plans were drawn up once and for all.

History as a child didn't interest me, not in the slightest. I had to choose a humanity subject when I chose my options and the joy of dropping history felt wonderful. It was all in the past, black and white pictures that had no relevance to the ‘real-world’. It was nothing more than ignorance and whilst I wouldn't say that I've developed an insatiable thirst for the subject I've learnt that its relevance cannot be understated and in actually fact, our very existence owes a debt of gratitude for the actions of those that have gone before us.

It was only really as an adult that I started showing an interest, after Dad had joined the Territorial Army and he returned back from weekends away and talked of his trips and re-told some of his discoveries that I began to pay attention. I even accompanied him on one of his trips to Europe, a brief whistle-stop to Vimy Ridge for the afternoon with my grandfather that was a mere extension to a ‘booze cruise’ where we shuttled over and made the most of the cheap duty-free beer at the time. But that brief experience provided so much, and to see it in more detail became a genuine thing to do as opposed to simply appeasing my Dad’s requests.

Our first stop was Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, the final burial place of Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, one of only three men in history to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice. The cemetery is located within a small hamlet on a roundabout and is one of 205 cemetery’s in the Ypres Salient area.

It felt strangely out of place, we arrived early in the morning and we were by far and away the earliest visitors of the day. The cemetery lies tucked away behind the gardens of neighbouring houses on a road void of tarmac and under construction or repair. That first visit is the worse one emotionally, suddenly seeing the immaculate line of gravestones and reading the messages that have been left from all over the world, “We will remember you forever, Lucy, age 6, New Zealand” and seeing the words inscribed on the headstone “A soldier of the Great War - known unto God”.

For all the men that are revered and talked about and have Wikipedia entries under their name, there are hundred of thousands of others who are soulless bodies that have had their name detached from them and inscribed on a monument some place else.

If I come across suddenly knowledgeable, like claiming to know the story of Noel Chavasse then I apologise. Everything written here I've either learnt from my Dad who played our guide over the course of the weekend, or is further information that I've looked up online in response to those new discoveries. Gareth and Foordy, my two friends who accompanied us on the trip were equally grateful for the depth of knowledge and information that Dad shared. With it being Father’s day on the Sunday I couldn't have wished for a better time to feel a huge sense of pride in him and thankful that I've still got someone to look up to at the age of 35, two years older than Chavasse was when he was killed.

With so much to see and the scale of everything so truly difficult to comprehend it is helpful to try and put some context to the situation. We visited the Passchendaele memorial museum, which is a collection of replica trenches, dugouts and collection of memorabilia housed in a rebuilt châteaux. Included in the museum is some rather haunting artwork depicting some of the hopeless scenes from the battlefields which provided some difficult answers to my main question ‘how did so many soldiers become ‘known only to God’?’. The answer isn't easy, but seeing raised hands pointed to the ceiling from a field of mud offered a profound experience as any felt at any point over the weekend.

After a morning of reflection and dark discoveries, it felt like an appropriate time to enjoy what the other half of the weekend was about - Belgian hospitality.

Now my knowledge of Belgian beer is as good as my history, namely non-existent. So when presented with a ‘bierkaart’ which carried nearly 100 names I took what I believed to be a logical approach. The same way I choose horses from the list when the Grand National comes around. If the name sounds good, the beer must be good! So a bottle of Kwak it was! Which arrived with a rather odd wooden contraption attached to it - all part of the wonderful journey of discovery that travel brings.

Talking of which, another thing that I learnt... ordinarily when ordering food from a menu, the words ‘cheese and ham toasted sandwich’ would get sniffed at and something more adventurous would be chosen. But label the same item as “Croque Monsieur”, they become immediately more appealing… so much so we all had one...

It wouldn’t have been a bad idea had someone suggested staying in De Volksbond for the rest of the afternoon, but there was still so much to see.

Nearby lies the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British Military Cemetery in the world. 34,887 names are listed on a giant wall which forms the northern perimeter of the plot of land in which the cemetery sits. Each name commemorates a soldier missing in action, which is in addition to the 11,954 graves that make up the cemetery census. Of those 11,954 graves, 8,367 as marked as unidentified burials. This statistic was repeated over and over again over the course of the weekend and continued to be the biggest thing for me to get my head around.

Tyne Cot and each of the other cemeteries we visited over the course of the weekend are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, an organisation set up as a direct consequence of the first world war. There are cemeteries all over the world, all maintained and looked after by the CWGC and judging by what we witnessed over the weekend they do a staggering job. Each and every one of the graves was immaculate, with information and visitors books supplied at each site. There has been a push over the past few years to ensure that they are at their most pristine, what with the centenary events that are happening over the next few years, but even once the commemorations are over the CWGC will continue to do what they've done for the past 100 years.

Our accommodation was in Ypres, a city that was destroyed and rebuilt exactly as it stood before hostilities started. It is also home to the Menin Gate, another memorial to the fallen and home to another 50,000 names of those whose graves are unknown. At 8pm, there is a processional ceremony of remembrance where the Last Post is played and a story of a soldier is told to the crowd - even if nobody is in attendance. This homage has been performed daily since 1928 and is intended to continue in perpetuity.

As the minute silence passed by and the dignitaries laid their poppies I felt slightly ashamed of myself. This event had been happening every day for nearly 100 years and I had never heard of it. 13,000 men were buried less than 3km away and goodness knows how many more in the wider area, and I never knew about it either. Grainy black and white images that had no relevance to the real world? What a stupid boy I was!

It wasn't until the following day, whilst visiting the Liverpool Scottish memorial stone at Bellewaarde that things began to make a semblance of sense. The stone is much like many of the memorials dotted around and that we visited. But this was in the middle of a field next to a copse of trees and a mine crater which acted as a permanent reminder of war. Out of all the places we visited this one felt the closest to the picture that I had built up in my mind of where I imagined it would be. Dad was telling another one of his stories and if you closed your eyes you could vividly imagine the noise of shelling and bombing overhead, it was that atmospheric. The generation of World War One survivors has long since passed. Leaving ghosts behind, names and those more fortunate, stories of their existence. Those stories Dad filled us with all weekend are those that have been passed down and immortalised for us, and for those who live long after us. I may well have been naive, ignorant and not interested as a child, but as an adult have been given a responsibility to ensure that those stories are continued. That when Oliver, Hayden and their generation grow up, that despite their personal ignorances they are given the opportunities to listen, learn and discover the past as I have done.

Human beings have committed gross atrocities against one another throughout history. But the first world war was a four year battle of attrition that neither side particularly wanted. Millions of lives were lost, for what? The answers, unlike World War Two are less clear, but they fought for us and gave their lives so we may live in peace. We say that we shall remember them and it’s all very well doing it once a year, but come November 11th this year I will truly mean it.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Hayden

I started writing a blog out of an interest in writing and technology, which over the past nine years has helped document events in mine and my family’s life. It has helped me come to terms with becoming a dad, a husband and document things that have happened, my role in them and its helped me learn more about myself as a man as well as a father. Except I’ve let life take over for a bit, more living, less writing, which is why there is a bit of a gap - a nine month long one.

After all, it isn’t like I’ve not had anything to write about, in fact I could easily have filled the pages of this blog with news on a daily basis, but if I had to write one post about the past nine months it would be summed up with the title of “Eat, Work, Sleep, Repeat”, all the rest is merely a collection of sub-plots, namely:

- Phoebe’s Little Sister Dreams
- Oliver's Footballing Ambitions
- Stephanie’s Birthing Nightmare

Which brings me nicely up date.

When we found out that we were expecting again, underneath the surprise and shock of the reality-hit, was the underlying emotional response to the news - fear of giving birth all over again.

It started with the result of the test and it built all the way up until the Monday evening of February the 23rd. As is now traditional, the baby had hit its due date and sailed right past it, warm and comfortable in the confines of Stephanie’s womb. We were sat watching a film called Fishtank, ironically enough when half an hour towards the end Stephanie’s waters finally burst - with it, nine months of fear escaped and a petrified mother-in-waiting took its place.

Being old hands at this racing off to the hospital lark I knew exactly what to do. With Oliver it was a hundred mile an hour dash of excitement as I brushed my teeth and packed a suitcase at the same time, Phoebe was more leisurely, but I was bitten by that experience, so with authority I readied all that needed to be ready, packed the car whilst waiting for the mother-in-law to arrive and to reassure a crying, anxiously shaking Stephanie who didn’t want to make the inevitable journey, efficiently or not.

We arrived at the hospital shortly before midnight, where Stephanie was attached to the usual machinery measuring contraction levels and the babies heartbeat. Rather than approaching the rather major subject of fear and how she might be made to feel more comfortable through pain relief, Steph decided to tackle the non-existent elephant in the room, namely how she might be able to give birth and not push anything else out at the same time, you know, that thing we all do anyway irrespective of whether you are a boy or a girl... but that, along with the current horticultural state of her ‘lady area’ were issues that were decidedly more important, and I had to sit and listen to them on three separate occasions with three separate midwives who probably have now, like me, finally heard it all.

Despite enjoying a rather entertaining hour at the hospital, we were sent home to wait for the contractions to speed up and were asked to return once they had, or if not, 24 hours later we’d be medically induced. Needless to say, we didn’t need to wait that long!

Having arrived home at 1am and returning back to the hospital an hour later and wired up again to the same contraptions we finally managed to talk about what was needed to get through the next few hours. It was a brief conversation, a simple ‘yes Stephanie no problem’ when the midwife was told politely “I NEED SOME GAS AND EFFING AIR!”

After what happened with Phoebe I knew that events were once again going to be quick. But after what happened last time around I felt the same level of anxiety that Stephanie had displayed earlier. I didn’t want to be put in a temporary room again, or the cleaning cupboard. I asked if there was room available at the inn, and there was - fortunately. The same delivery suite as Oliver was born in and with that my fears and worries, for the time being evaporated as suddenly as they had descended.

Phoebe arrived quickly, very quickly, whereas Oliver was a long drawn out affair. This time around speed was to play an important role.

Just as the nurses were readying Stephanie with various needles and attachments into the veins in her hand she needed to start pushing. Gas and Air was inhaled deeply and her breathing was fast and everything was as before. Stephanie had done this twice already and she was doing it brilliantly all over again with the fear seemingly gone and running on her maternal instinct.

Where I was standing I had the contraption behind me that was monitoring the contractions and the baby’s heartbeat. With Phoebe there was concern with her heart rate dropping and things got nervous for a little while so I was alert to what was happening around me. With Stephanie pushing and the baby arriving any minute now, things started to get tense.

The room filled with more people and the growing crowd at the bottom of Stephanie’s feet started to get more concerned. Looking over my shoulder I could see that the baby’s heart rate had dropped and it had been low for a little while. With a concerned atmosphere in the room I knew that they needed the baby out and quickly and as safely as they could.

The delivery suite is a chaotic place. It starts of calm except for the beeping of machines and the deep breaths of the mother-to-be. People come in and out and a lot of the time it is at a leisurely pace, at smoking pace if you were outside in the park and watching the world go by. Until the exact moment when the baby is visible, thing change, the energy levels ascend instantly and it all begins to happen.

It was all happening now, instruments were passed around, starting with small ones, big pushes and disappointed faces. Further instruments were passed along the line to the midwife at the front, getting bigger in size and more evil with their intention. In the background more people were arriving, they are wearing suits with hastily thrown on scrubs which indicate they are the serious brains and the go-to people when something goes wrong. They are preparing for all eventualities and this is all communicated in secret body language and signals as the worried looks get more anxious.

The only way I can describe what was happening is by reverting to slap-stick. It was a game of tug-of-war and the queue of people at the foot of Stephanie's bed were getting stronger in number, pulling one way as Stephanie pushed downwards for momentum. Further instruments appeared, more mechanical in look and ever larger. I had my head buried in her chest, half in fear and half in encouragement. My elbow was resting on her protruding stomach, which fell suddenly as the pushing and pulling finally met its goal.

We were told much later, that during the birth the baby was side on and they couldn't turn it around in time as they needed to get it out safely. Had the heart rate been fine, ordinarily they'd have taken Stephanie into theatre, had an epidural and made all the more comfortable before attempting to move the baby into position.

But with the baby now safely out, I didn’t know what we were having. Stephanie suspected, or she knew from peeping during an earlier scan. I didn’t need to be told once I had seen. We had another boy, who just as Oliver and Phoebe had before him needed some air inside his lungs before we could hold him. The atmosphere in the room, the energy, the nervous looks and glances and my relief that he was out expressed themselves in the form of deep, dry sobs as we waited to hear our new-born son cry.

I couldn’t watch with Oliver, I wasn’t in the room with Phoebe and I nor could I watch this time around. So I watched the midwife. The one with the posh voice who kept apologising to Stephanie in an “I am so, so sorry” voice, enunciating the “I am” as opposed to “I’m”. Her face was etched in worry, a concerned look which didn’t help me, but I needed something to concentrate on as looking at Stephanie would have been too emotional. With hearing the baby cry the midwifes face changed, she breathed out heavily and Stephanie and I did too.

She needed a little help after the events of the previous hour, so I went and met our son. The nurse was there holding the umbilical cord in her hand. I hadn’t the opportunity to cut the cord with Oliver or Phoebe, so this was a special moment for me. It might sound strange, but for me cutting the cord is a defining time for a father and to have missed out on all three children would have been a disappointment. But I did, third time lucky and I looked at him for the first time. With Oliver it was a shoulders out pride at a first born son and with Phoebe my heart melted in an instant. But right there, right then, the feeling was different, it was like everything made sense, the missing piece of the puzzle if you are a fan of clichés - and it was. The boy in my arms, who looked like Oliver and Phoebe all mixed up made everything fit together as if we’d been waiting for him the whole time.

Hayden Aaron Bird. A second son, known for nine months as ‘Oops’ in loving acknowledgement to, as Stephanie said to me - the greatest decision we never made.
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