It was at the end of February in 1945 that I celebrated, courtesy of the RAF and Hitler, my 22nd birthday in Belgium. I was stationed at a former Luftwaffe airfield that was at that time used for fighter planes to fly short reconnaissance missions to the nearby collapsing German front.
Then the world was in turmoil from five long years of world war that had turned Europe into a charnel house. But at the time I didn’t feel jaded because I believed that the tide of evil that had enveloped my generation’s world since the Great Depression was retreating from the shoreline of civilisation.
On that night, 73 years ago, my future and Europe’s stood before me and I faced it with wonder and the fragile grace that comes from having lived through tumultuous events. I remember on that long-ago evening of my 22nd birthday drinking whiskey to take the edge off the cold breath of winter with mates on a deserted tarmac.
Above me, a darkened sky was torn violently open by an endless stream of artillery shells that were trying to pulverise a German V2 rocket emplacement several miles away from our base. As the earth around me shook with the thunder of war, I was overcome with the realisation that, as this conflict was nearing its end, I had a good chance of walking away from it without a scratch. The premonition that I was going to live whilst millions of others had died because of the evil machinations of tyranny and the indifference of the entitled to the suffering of others humbled me on that long-ago birthday.
It was blind luck that I survived both the Great Depression and the Second World War both physically and emotionally intact, but Britain was a different country from what it is today because all of us, from worker to intellectual, felt we were part of a great cause that was vital for the survival of civilisation. And that spirit of destiny and optimism didn’t die when we’d vanquished Hitler; it lived on through the people’s desire to elect a Labour government intent on changing our nation for the better.
Unlike today, no political party in my youth advocated the isolation that Brexit will bring to Britain. Instead all insisted that our military and political survival depended on cooperation and integration with other nations. Yet today, the political descendants of Winston Churchill are turning our nation into a hermit kingdom whose wealth and ingenuity are being squandered for an idealised notion that we are still a mighty power that the nations of the world want to trade with on our terms.
So much has changed in my mood since those early months of 1945 when I felt optimistic for our world’s future. But then America’s president was Franklin D Roosevelt, a man who had made his country great again not by tax cuts but by making sure that each citizen could afford a decent roof over their heads and food on their tables. Whereas today Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office with the malevolence of a Pinochet-in-waiting who is only restrained by a constitution that maybe can prevent tyrants but never the indifference of citizens addicted to reality TV shows and online shopping.
So, as I stand on the cusp of my 95th birthday the night air still bites but my confidence in humanity’s survival and its march towards progress dims like the afternoon sky just before the approach of rain. In fact, my hope that all will be well for my grandchildren’s generation is circumscribed by a growing anger and frustration towards my children’s generation because they bottled their responsibilities to our country and society in pursuit of personal pleasures.
The baby boomers were bequeathed by my generation a society built upon a bedrock of personal sacrifice and a commitment to social and economic justice. Yet all of our accomplishments, from the NHS to council housing as well as our unfinished work trying to ensure a more equal Britain, was pawned off by them to the hedge funds, tax-avoiding corporations and political parties that believe governments should be run like businesses.
And now with our nation in chaos over Brexit, and fascism becoming as great a threat to our security as it once was in the 1930s, the majority in this country and the western world sit like the inhabitants of Pompeii the day before Vesuvius destroyed their city and their lives, ignoring the warning calls of imminent destruction.
I have almost a hundred years of lived history pulsing through my blood and memories. So when I tell you that this is the best of times for the one per cent and the worst of times for everyone else, heed my words. It is now time that you gather the spirit of my generation into your hearts to begin the task of rebuilding this country, Europe and the world as it should be. It is time to make our Britain a green and pleasant land for all who live here.
It’s why with the little time I have remaining on this earth, I plan to journey to the refugee hot spots of the world and use my voice to end this crisis and teach people that xenophobia only leads to repression and war. On my 95th birthday, I will toast my longevity with sherry and declare that my last stand as a human being was to not go gently into the good night.
This piece is an extract from “Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future”, published by Little Brown. It is a searing modern polemic that shows, with the indisputable force of lived experience, why the past shouldn’t stay buried, and the future is ours for the taking