“DNA methylation represents the best characterised form of epigenetic modification.” A.Page, R. Bommarito. in ‘Toxicoepigenetics’, Academic Press (2018).
The painter, Georgia O’Keefe, once wrote that she was terrified her whole life but she did not let that stop her doing anything she wanted. I like that thought because it reflects what I have always felt. It seemed that since I was a child there has been a terror waiting for me around every corner. I only realise now how much I have always believed that cowardice is my chief sin and my most awful secret failing. Writing in this way unguardedly is also scary. It might bring release but bad consequences might come from it. There is usually someone who gets hurt by candour and I know that I have already upset others who have thought they were depicted in my writing. John Cowper Powys recorded in his Autobiography that he had always felt that people should be lied to in order not to upset their fixed view of the world and I must admit that I have tended to that viewpoint. When Mum first heard I was a writer, she said to me, “I hope you don’t say bad things about us.” Mum was always troubled by an ever-present host of possible threats but I’ve realised now that even my robust and resilient Dad was also probably damaged by fear deriving from his war experiences. When we went for walks, he used to warn against being silhouetted against the skyline or while walking across open grasslands with the dogs he’d gesture with his stick and call out, “No bunching up!” as if remembering all those soldiers he had lost to machine gun and artillery fire.
I’ve been reading how the biologists had discovered that we don’t simply inherit traits from our DNA sequence but there is also ‘epigenetic’ inheritance. This a mechanism by which genes are switched on or off caused by environmental factors. It seems that there is a biological mechanism by which we inherit the traumas of our parents. Heaven knows how far this can reach back but I now wonder if my sense of profound dislocation comes from a deep inner echoing of the harsh history of my family line where the males have always been soldiers and the women – well, they have been survivors in one way or another, I suppose.
My Dad gave me a photo of himself to take with me as I set off at the age of seven to my tough Rhodesian boarding school. I must have looked at it countless times during those early terrifying years of schooling. Dad’s photo shows him mounted on a horse. I know now that it was taken in May, 1945 at Wismar on the Elbe. Dad was a major in the 6th Airborne Division, an elite unit. He was only twenty one at the time of the photo but he does not look it. The war had given him a premature battle-hardened solidity. His unit had fought its way through Europe over the previous year and Dad had been involved in the bloody battles of the Normandy Invasion, The Ardennes and the Rhine Crossings. A third of his men had been lost as casualties. His unit met the first German deputation to seek surrender for all German Forces in the West on 3rd May led by Admiral Von Friedeberg. Dad told me that his gnarly paratroopers had roughed up the German officers and had taken their hats and decorations as souvenirs but Dad made them return them and sent the delegation on to Divisional headquarters and to their subsequent newsreel appearances all over the world.
The photo shows Dad in his best battledress. You can see the Pegasus emblem of Airborne Forces on his left shoulder. He is still wearing his pistol, the butt of the 9mm Browning is sticking out from the holster flap. They needed to be vigilant as there were still threats even though the war had ended. Dad told me that his men killed several Nazi holdouts from the Werewolf organisation sometime after the surrender. Dad didn’t really like horses and this is the only picture of him on one of the beasts. He told me that there were some German military stables at his headquarters and he and his brother officers had commandeered the horses for a lark. In many ways this is a victory photo. He and his comrades had earned their moment in the sun. So, this is the photo that accompanied me to boarding school. I struggle to think what I made of it at the time.
As a kid living in late-colonial Africa, I was more used to seeing Dad in khaki shorts and bushshirt or in lightweight Italian-style suits. He usually looked suntanned and Clark Gable-ish with his pencilled moustache and wavy hair so this military pose must have seemed strange to me. I think Dad chose it for what it represented to him. His Wismar photo perhaps celebrated a triumph over fear. It showed that you could survive anything and come out stronger. For me at the time, I think I interpreted it as a heroic pose. It was an image of my imperturbable Dad who dealt with all threats with the same aplomb like the time he pushed our stuck Land Rover out of a muddy ditch in the Luangwa in Northern Rhodesia while a pride of lions lurked nearby. He turned his back on the lions and kept on calmly instructing Mum how to steer the vehicle while she wrestled with the wheel. I looked back out of the rear hatch windows to see the tawny menacing shapes creeping closer and closer but Dad seemed to ignore the danger.
Dad was steady in the face of peril. I still sit at his solid leather-topped desk each day. The drawers remain filled with his bulldog clips, wooden rulers, heavy thumbtacks with milled edges and inked address stamps with his name incised deeply on the blocks. His solidity and his calm mastery of the physical world did not blunt his fierce romanticism and devotion to Mum. During his last illness, he kept seizing my hand in a surprisingly strong grip and instructing me to pull him up. I’m sure he wanted to get back on his feet and return to his job of protecting and providing for Mum.
This next photo was taken on the 13th April, 1945 (Dad was a precise annotator in his photo albums). The place was near the German town of Falsrode, It shows my father (centre) with a brother officer to his right and his driver to his left. Only three weeks before they had lost many of their unit in the battle to take the Rhine crossings. Dad told me he had found the body of his best friend who had been burned to death in his wooden assault glider. Now, they were deep into Germany, pursuing the fleeing German army. It might seem a peaceful picture under the flowering cherries but two days after this photo was taken Dad's unit was one of the first British troops to liberate Belsen concentration camp. Dad never could speak about what he saw there but he did say that there were so many dead that they had to drive their jeeps - like the one shown here- right over the dead bodies. He told me, "After that, we knew why we were soldiering..." Mum served with the A.T.S. during the war in shore batteries on the Immingham coast. She told me she was promoted to being an officer as she was one of the few women soldiers who did not faint when the 15 inch naval guns thundered out.
Mum could never bear to tell me anything about her life before the war other than saying that her mother died in childbirth when she was five years old and that she hated her father. One night, in the last year of her life I was tucking her into bed during the period when I supported her to live at home, she uncharacteristically asked me what I was interested in at that moment. I told her that I’d become fascinated by the treatment of wounded soldiers during the First World War. I’d begun to collect vintage photos of these British soldiers. Those haunted eyes of the maimed and injured soldiers seemed to call to something in me. I’d began to research more into the subject and had massed up a collection of old nurse’s albums and photographs. It’s strange how obsessed I had become about the hidden history of those millions of wounded men. I told Mum about my photos and watercolour sketches of soldiers in the uniform of the wounded. It was called ‘hospital blues’, an outfit with blue pale lapel facings and a red floppy tie. I wanted to write a book about the experiences of the men that wore that uniform and formed an idea that the meaning of ‘a wound’ changed during that time period. I also wanted to explore the link between wounds and memory.
Mum looked very intent as she listened to me talking about the Great War wounded. She told me that she knew that hospital blues uniform very well because her father used to wear it. I asked her how that could be because she was born in June 1918 in the last year of the war. She said the uniform was worn by disabled soldiers for years after the war. She said that my grandfather, her father, had been “severely wounded” in the trenches and this had greatly affected his behaviour. He had shuffled about Mum’s childhood house in hospital blues and had become a monster to her. I was amazed to find out about that synchronous path had led me to studying the World War One wounded while I unknowingly bore the epigenetic emblemata of that war. My grandfather had received his wound, probably a head wound, he in turn had evidently hurt my mother and she in turn had passed her terror onto me by the methylation processes of epigenetic DNA scratching out my history at a cellular level.
Epigenetics is a rival to the more programmatic orthodox Darwinian vision of the survival of selected genes. It seems we all been too ready to reject Lamarck’s famous pre-Darwinian insistence on the soft inheritance of acquired characteristics as an adaptive shaping force in nature. It looks like the new science of transgenerational epigenetics might vindicate Lamarck. I read Lamarck’s theories as a young man and thought they had a commonsensical validity but like most people I surrendered to the beautiful determinism of Darwinian orthodoxy. I think there were always a few Lamarckians hanging on like flat-earthers but I was not one of them. Now, it seems that the inheritance of acquired characteristics has made a comeback and can live side-by-side with the more commonly understood process of evolution as the change over time in biological populations through heritable characteristics. That now explains why researchers have found the children of men killed in the First World War lived far shorter lives than was to be expected or how successive generations that followed Holocaust survivors carried a proportionately greater risk of mental ill-health and anxiety than the average population. The epigenticists call this cross-generational pooling of characteristics, this moving in certain directions as a canalising of phenotypes. Well, my phenotypes were definitely canalised by Dad and Mum’s war wounds and those of my soldier ancestors before them. I have no children to pass the damage onto. Maybe, my books will be my canalisations and my readers will absorb my phenotypes for good or ill.
There is a famous television documentary called The World At War. It’s an account of the Second World War made in 1973 and narrated by Laurence Olivier. It’s one of the best historical documentaries ever made. It is still screened pretty much constantly on one history channel or another. Dad appears in the documentary, the second to last episode that covers the end of the war in Europe. It shows newsreel footage of British airborne soldiers shaking hands with Soviet tank men in front of Russian heavy armour. The documentary describes how this was a joyful scene of the victorious Allies meeting up on the Elbe in 1945. The documentary used the image to illustrate universal relief that the war has ended with the triumph over fascism and the forces of darkness. That’s the official version and a still from the newsreel appeared in the British press under the headlines “Victory in Europe” but, all the living mistakenly draw too sharp distinctions as Rilke’s First Duino Elegy has it and Dad certainly used to laugh when he saw himself in the World At War footage.
Dad is the third man from the right in the newsreel still. He has his maroon airborne forces beret and is dressed in a camo Dennison jacket, Browning .45 on his hip with goggles around his neck for speeding in his command jeep. He told me the film was taken on 3rd May 1945, two days day before the official German surrender. Those lime trees freshly coming in to leaf lined the east main route to the town of Wismar. This was a port town the British snatched from under the noses of the Russians who were intent on pushing towards Lubeck and Denmark. The Russians are tank crew standing next to their up-gunned T34. Dad told me the scene was actually not at all friendly. Those handshakes were a bit of fakery for the newsreel. The real situation was quite tense and you can see some of the Russians leaning away from the British soldiers. All three British paratroopers in the image, including Dad, are holding onto the Russians with their left hands as if trying to pin or restrain them. According to Dad, the Russians were surly and resentful at being blocked from rampaging further into Germany and had to be dragooned into posing for the camera. The British were overwhelmed by terrified civilians fleeing the ravaging Russian atrocities and there was a tense stand-off between his men and the Russians in these outskirts of Wismar. Dad’s commander on that day ordered him to level his 17 pounder guns at the Soviet tanks to stop them rolling further westward.
The past resists those who draw too sharp periodisations. This picture hows not onl the end of one conflict, but also captures that the Second World War was about to be fought out again under a new guise— the Cold War with the Russians that is still going on to this day in one way or another. Dad always made it clear to me that he thought that conflict formed the substrate of most human endeavour. It’s so moving and so strange to see Dad come to life again each time I see the documentary, his burly figure shouldering forwards to grab the Russian, as if he also is resisting the demarcations and caesuras of commonly understood reality and is still surviving and moving at a different pace in his own domain.
I’ve been thinking about my guilt for not trying harder to speak to my parents and for not being a better son to them. I came to a belief in my twenties that to be truly adult one needed to separate from parents and to come with a sword to sever those bonds. I never apologised to them for the things I did to hurt them although for their part they did try to say sorry to me for the damaging things of childhood. I’m not really troubled about making excuses for them now nor making excuses for myself. Excuses carry a freight of accusation, they imply a continuing quarrel in the same way that confessions are usually lies or attempts to make new myths about the past.
I can accept now that Mum and Dad lived in the land of the ‘not-named’, the ‘unspeakable’, a shadowy world of corridors and slanting shadows. No doubt they had good reason to be like that and besides they showed an admirable fidelity to their notion of the world right up to the end. I took some things from the mirror image my parents held up to me. Like them I’m stubborn, crabbed and steadfast to my own sense of duty. My parents enjoyed recounting amusing anecdotes yet unlike them I want my stories to shine a light into dark places. In place of their silence, I want to make houses of words. There is a violence to my rejection of their way of doing things. I’m enacting my own version of ‘soldiering’. I recognise now there is an occult creativity in my family legacy of repression and screwed-up genes that keeps on feeding me as an artist. I think my ancestor spirits or the DNA are telling me I may be inhabiting a different sort of self than the one I’ve always imagined. I’m tougher than I thought and more resolute. I’m going to keep on writing come what may.
Baie dankie vir alles, Ma and Pa.
Rod Madocks is a UK-based writer. This piece is extracted from his yet unpublished memoir about his African childhood: ‘The Last Rhodesian’. His latest book is ‘Our Tan: Memoir of a Destroyed Life’ by Shoestring Press: a lament for the loss of a young woman and a savage critique of the institutions that failed her. Other writings include the novel 'No Way To Say Goodbye' a book of short stories about his career as a forensic specialist in maximum security hospitals, 'Ship of Fools' , the crime novel Babbicam and The Rising Flame a memoir about the WW2 poet, Sidney Keyes.