A few years ago I started writing family history into my poems. Perhaps it is because I don’t have children to pass the stories on to, I wanted to immortalise my parents and grandparents, now passed away, in my poetry. Here’s my Dad, George Sutherland, born 1925, in his Air Training Corps uniform at about the mid-point of World War II.
He later trained as a radio operator and flew in Lancaster bombers, as part of the 617 “Dambusters” squadron, but after the dambuster pilots had left. He loathed his boss, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, whom he described as a ‘martinet’. I wrote a sonnet about my Dad, who I think was a little wistful about missing the action. To put in some colour, I mentioned a dance hall where my parents met, which they referred to as the “Mill Vane”, and also the command “scramble, boys”. After the poem had been published, by the lovely boys at Prole Magazine, I found out that it was actually the “Milvain” and that Bomber Command never “scrambled” – that was the (reactive) job of the fighter pilots. The bombers planned their missions pro-actively and were given orders earlier in the day in the “ops briefing”. (It was my mum who worked the capstan lathe at Vickers-Armstrong.) So I had to change my poem, a thing many poets never stop doing.
What Did You Do In The War?
Dancing at the Milvain on Saturday night
to “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”,
the boys in uniform, the girls utility-bright
quickstepped the dangerous glamour of ’43.
In the Nissen hut, toasting cheese around the stove,
waiting for the ops briefing that wasn’t called;
at Vickers-Armstrong, working the capstan lathe
dodging the Doodlebug that didn’t fall.
By the time we were twenty it was over and out,
with only the briefest taste of enemy action;
into Civvy Street with a duffle bag of doubt
that anything would ever give more satisfaction.
Try telling the barefoot militants of ‘68
how we bought them all the peace they need to graduate.