Thursday, July 10, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls

“The world”, said Ernest Hemingway, “is a fine place and worth fighting for.”

Ironically, I had a ‘Hemingway adventure’ of my own last winter, tracing the author’s path around the lively bars of Havana. As a boy, I discovered a loose connection, between the great 20th century author and a beach inspector in Thanet and it goes back to the Spanish civil war.

I had just left school and was “working the deckchairs” in Palm Bay when a chance conversation revealed that the old chap I was working with, Jim, (not his real name) had been a member of the International Brigade, fighting for the Republican cause against the Nationalists of General Franco’s Nazi-Germany-supported army in Spain between 1936 and 1939.

The advent of the mass media allowed an unprecedented level of attention on the Spanish Civil War (Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Robert Capa all covered it) and so the it became notable for the passion and political division it inspired, and for atrocities, such as the bombing of Guernica, committed on both sides of the conflict.

My own father had to leave Madrid because of the civil war and Jim, a fervent trade-unionist, between rolling cigarettes, in a cold windswept beach-hut in the July of 1975, shared with me his personal story of an encounter with the author and the events which led him to volunteer to fight in Spain.

Of course, Hemingway wrote the classic, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” but Jim and many others like him had equally fascinating stories which may never be told. There was John Brown who lived quietly in Broadstairs, who flew pathfinder Mosquitoes in the Second World War and led the bomber raid on the German Peenemunde rocket complex. In Birchington, a former Royal Flying Corps pilot from WW1 who was as bright as a button, used to frequent the Bungalow Hotel and even my former head-teacher at the Charles Dickens School, Mr Morland, a member of the elite Navy Special Boat Service, had to clear the obstacles from the D-Day beaches before daylight, in advance of the main landing.

Thanet, I find from meeting our retired residents, is full of untold stories of personal heroism and achievement and with every year that passes, more of this history is lost. Today, we have a thriving internet ‘Blogging’ community on the island and for the first time in history, it gives everyone a chance to tell to their story and secure it for the future as part of a universal record of human experience.

A secret history is a lost history and so today I would really like to encourage readers to use the internet and sites like to start telling their own stories of the more interesting events of their lives or their grandparents as they dovetail into moments of our collective history. All that remains of Jim’s own Hemingway encounter is in my own fading memory of a conversation of thirty years ago but he firmly believed that what he did in Spain as a volunteer made a moral difference in defending Europe from the growing ambitions of Nazi Germany.

There are lots of unknown stories in Thanet, Lots of ‘Jims’ both men and women and perhaps an Ernest Hemingway or two hidden among them. Now might be a good time to use the Internet to start telling their 20th century stories before it’s too late.