It wasn’t me.

About ten years ago I stayed at a hotel in Hamburg, within sight of the railway station. I knew Hamburg had been ‘badly bombed,’ in The War, ‘badly bombed’ being a polite, English way of saying it was almost removed from the map by the RAF and USAAF who dropped tens of thousands of tons of bombs on civilians.

Mustang pilot J.C. Howell, USAAF, Leiston.
Mustang pilot J.C. Howell, USAAF, Leiston.
Like you, I saw the film Memphis Belle. And the noble scene where the pilot refuses to just toggle the bombs away and go home but takes the airplane through the bomb run again, in case his bombs hit a school next to a factory. Because he was noble. Because he was American. Because it was a stupid film.

I had an American pilot from the war stay at my house for 10 days, a couple of times. By the end of the Swing music and recollections my significant other and I had the start of a drinking problem we had to deal with but we were pretty sure we’d qualify on the P51. Early one morning the pilot was describing a manoeuvre I couldn’t understand, something about how flying in flights of four aircraft and having to swing back and forth over the stream of bombers they were escorting, but having to fly much faster than the bombers because that was the way the planes were built, when they turned the inside plane would have to throttle right back and turn tight in, while the outside plane in the four would have to speed up in a much wider turn. Then a couple of minutes or so later they’d have to do it again, but the other way around. Then again a minute or so later again, back the way they’d started. For three or four hours. When I said I didn’t really know what he meant the first time around the old pilot was suddenly in my face, angry.

“What do you mean? You were there!”

It disturbed me. I didn’t know who he was remembering and confusing with me. I didn’t know and suddenly didn’t want to know what happened next.

The bombs went pretty much anywhere, most of the time. I don’t think anyone could tell where in a circle of 500 yards anything was going to go, assuming they could see anything in the first place. And in Hamburg, and Berlin and Hildesheim – at the end, pretty much anywhere, it didn’t matter. Nobody was really aiming at anything. They just wanted those places gone.

I used to use the stairs in the hotel. I didn’t understand then or now how the railway station looked the same as when it was built, except blacker. I thought that would have made a handy thing to aim at, but it was clearly very much still there. So was the hotel. It had a huge Hanseatic ship model hanging in reception.

At the top of the stairs there was a little window that looked wrong. When I had a good look at it I could see why. The glass was much thicker at the bottom of the pane than at the top.

I think the glass had started to melt when the firestorm came. My ancestors did that. My father was in the RAF. He wasn’t the pilot he lied and said he was; he didn’t fly the aircraft. But he helped.

And for all of that I am ashamed.

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Full disclosure

It was dark. We’d finished eating. I got up to open a bottle of wine. She looked down and frowned and pursed her lips as she sat at the kitchen table. I’d got used to that look. It was usually when I said I loved her.

“It won’t work. You just say everything, to anyone. I don’t want anyone knowing about me. I might as well get a sign made as tell you anything. It’s what you’re like.”

She looked up at me then and kept my eyes until I sat down. What she said was true. Sort of.

I do say things. A bit. Quite a lot, in fact. My truest, deepest friends will tell you. The kind ones call it ‘sharing.’ There’s a reason for it.

In my life some people have benefitted hugely from silence. My father, for one. We were one of the last houses on the new estate in the fields to have a telephone. My father worked away from home a lot. In fact he was only at the house three or maybe four times a week at the most. Even some Christmasses he’d have to work and as children we never knew when he would arrive. Then everything had to change as the whole house was geared to welcome his triumphant homecoming.

Name and rank

His parents were dead, so conveniently dead that although he talked about his father who was in a submarine accident off Blyth after WW1 (but not one that can be identified clearly, looking at any website I’ve ever found) and the mother whose foot his ex-RAF guard dog used to hold gently in its mouth none of them turned up at his wedding to my mother. In fact, nobody had ever seen a single relation of my father’s, ever. Alarm bells ringing just a teeny bit yet? They should be.

So, it’s the 1960s, we have a new house, my father has a new car every two years and he isn’t there a lot of the time. When he is the whole house is disrupted. As children when we’re asked at school what our parents do my father goes ballistic and roars around the house screaming that he’s going to complain to the school officially. Somehow he never does, officially or otherwise.

action man
The invisible man.

The time he really blew up at me was over an Action Man. Action Man, like my father who had been in the RAF during what was then called The War (we just don’t have proper wars any more) had a pay-book. With his name and serial number in it. I didn’t know anything about serial numbers, so when I had to (obviously) fill-in the details I asked my father what his serial number was. Because he’d spent six years giving this every time anybody asked for it my father recited it immediately. Then there was a silence.

“Why do you want it?”

I said it was to put it in my Action Man’s pay book. The rest of the day was shit.

I didn’t know why for years. Nearly fifteen years in fact, until I worked out that his serial number was the one thing he couldn’t fake. And as a career liar, my father faked a lot. Like many abusers, he got his victims to collude with the abuse, making excuses for him, refusing to check his lies, pretending things he said or did were a misunderstanding.

Things came to a head when my mother tried to divorce him and found out that you can’t divorce someone you aren’t actually legally married to. For example, if they were already married when they married you. And running a parallel family, although strictly speaking that part isn’t enshrined in law. John Richard Bennett, presumably the only son of Hannah Ramsey and John Bennett, who were married in the parish church of St Mary Cray, near Orpington, wasn’t born in Australia. His parents were never immigrants to the UK. He did not arrive in the UK aged two. He was not a dashing pilot. He was a liar, a bigamist and an abuser who during the war learned to work a lathe on an airfield somewhere. His fondness for the Wellington bomber he made from an Airfix kit might narrow down which airfield he was on if anyone could be bothered to find out. I can’t.

I’ve probably just done it again. John Richard Bennett, bigamist and abuser, sometime resident of Snitterfield, Warkwickshire, Gillingham, Dorset  Southwick and Trowbridge, Wiltshire, take a bow. You’re in the limelight, the place you always thought should be yours, but I think maybe for different reasons. I’ve stopped protecting abusers.

The beautiful woman in my kitchen the other night isn’t sitting at my table now. But if she ever reads this, that’s the reason why I say things. That’s why I’ve spent 20 years finding things out and telling people about them, for a living. That’s why I don’t like secrets. If people don’t want people knowing about the things they do there’s usually a good reason for it and I’ve never heard a nice one. Silence isn’t golden. It covers up abuse so everyone can pretend it isn’t happening. Silence doesn’t protect the victims, it just hides the people who look for victims. I’ve seen that happen enough.






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