Friday, 10 February 2017

Warm memories of hard times

It’s a pleasure to write this post in the dining room at Basel railway station in Switzerland, a setting of some historical importance for my family.

Basel station dining room: tasteful, pleasant, even luxurious
Now as it was 70 years ago
1946 was a hard year for Britain. The Second World War finished the country as a world power. By loading itself with debt and throwing all its resources into the fight, along with quite a few from its imperial possessions, the country managed to defend its home soil against Nazi Germany. It couldn’t go over to the offensive without support from the US. There was no question of its playing a significant role in the Pacific Theatre. That lack of strength and its crippling debts would spell the end of the empire in the first couple of decades after the war, a time when the country would also awaken to a sense that it should perhaps be less concerned with playing the world power, and focus instead on internal justice and opportunity.

That’s a lesson the nation could do well to learn again, in the face of the great power nostalgia that expressed itself in the Brexit vote. Why, Prime Minister Theresa May even suggests Britain can be a truly global player, a notion which would be amusingly quaint if it weren’t also a toxic delusion.

One of the organisations that was trying to improve internal conditions back in 1946, was the Fabian Society, one of the founding organisations of the British Labour Party.

“You didn’t work for the Fabian Society,” says my mother, who did, “if you wanted to make money. You did it for the principle.”

Bankrupt Britain was living with rationing. You could go abroad, but couldn’t take more than £10 with you. That’s the equivalent of nearly £400 today, hardly a princely sum – a yearly membership at Trump’s golf club in Scotland costs six times more. On a Fabian Society salary, however, even scraping together £10 wasn’t easy. To enjoy a foreign holiday, only the second in her life – the first had been nineteen years earlier, when she was three – my mother had to find an inexpensive option.

Fortunately, she had a German friend also working for the Fabians. The friend’s mother had managed to get out of Germany with her daughter during the Nazi period, after having spent some time producing clandestine opposition publications. The daughter reckoned she could sleep anywhere, having got used to being put to bed in cellars with the press clattering in the background.

Her friend told my mother about an organisation that was helping Germans trying to put themselves back together after the Hitler regime – Jews in some cases, but generally any Socialists, Communists, or others who’d opposed the Nazis and had suffered mental or physical injuries from which they needed to recover. The organisation had an Alpine chalet in the Ticino, the Italian-speaking Swiss canton. Whenever there were spare places, they could be made available to Fabians who wanted a holiday at reasonable cost.

It turned out to be one of my mother’s best holidays, one she remembers with pleasure and in detail seventy years on.

One of the key moments came after an overnight train journey down to Basel, her first stop in Switzerland. While they waited for the train out, they repaired to the station dining room for breakfast. Where, to use an anachronistic expression, they had their minds blown.

“The piles of fine white bread!” she tells me, “the heaps of butter! The jam! The coffee with creamy milk swimming in it!”

Bankrupt Britain, cold and with food rationed, could offer nothing to rival it. This, for the generation whose youth had been broken by the war, was luxury.

No wonder she remembers it so fondly to this day. So should we, who take such riches for granted. To say nothing of the international collaboration that guarantees the peace on which they rest.

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