Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Curious contrasts

Two articles in the press on successive days make great reading and a fascinating contrast.

Yesterday it was the story of the imminent departure of Eric Daniels from the position of Chief Executive of Lloyds Bank, the group which was only rescued from the bankruptcy to which he led it during the recent financial crisis, by a £20 billion bale out by taxpayers.

Today, I read about the funeral service for Eileen ‘Didi’ Nearne. During the war, she was one of the agents Special Operations Executive ran behind enemy lines. Serving in France, she was captured by the Gestapo, tortured by being beaten and having her head held under water (there’s nothing new under the sun, is there, what with water boarding being all the rage today), escaped from Ravensbrück concentration camp, was captured again by the SS, talked her way out again, and was finally hidden by a priest till released by US forces.

From time to time I wonder what I would have done had I been faced, like my father and grandfather, with having to take part in war. My father was an airman who flew single plane missions, for instance dropping supplies to resistance groups in France. He often told me about the sheer loneliness of being up there, the only plane around, in the cold and dark of the night sky, with well-armed enemies below. Would my courage have been up to doing as much? I’d like to think so, but I was never put to the test.

Not that I regret it.

In one respect at least an airman was fortunate. Once he was back from a mission, he was home, surrounded by his friends, in relative safety. He could go to sleep with every expectation of making it through to the morning. Eileen Nearne couldn’t. She worked as a wireless operator from March 1944, and every time she got her equipment running, she must have wondered whether this would be the time the German radio detection service would get her location before she’d finished transmitting, and the Gestapo would come crashing through her door to capture her. That happened in July. She’d only lasted four months, and then the torture started.

Would I have had the guts to do what my father did? I don’t know. Would I have had the guts to do what Eileen Nearne did? Out of the question. I can’t imagine coping with that level of terror.

Could I have coped with the pressure Eric Daniels was under? Without wanting to be boastful, I think I have both the moral and the physical strength to make a complete mess of one our great financial institutions, just as flamboyantly as he did. Paid enough, I could probably develop the gall to go and ask the taxpayer to stump up a fortune to make up for my shortcomings. I could probably find it in me to argue that I’m justified in taking a colossal salary on the grounds that I was taking responsibility for the corporation, where ‘taking responsibility’ means cocking up and asking other people to stump up for me.

Eileen Nearne died penniless and alone.

Eric Daniels will be collecting a pension pot worth £4 million.

I spent some time thinking of a good way to conclude this piece. But what more really needs saying?

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