Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Proximity of the Past

Andrew Greig once spoke on the radio about a sense of there being no time or space when he found himself in certain wild and isolated places. I recognised this instantly and was so excited to hear such things spoken of on the radio that I bought one of his books on the strength of it. Yesterday I had the opposite experience, of being overwhelmingly aware of time and of events in the past feeling very close indeed.

Being in Kintyre at the weekend on other business (pleasure, to be exact) I made the trip to the Mull. After a gate there is several miles of road, very winding and also very windy (as in windswept and blowing-a-gale) which lead you to the top of the hill above the lighthouse. It was a multi-season day involving brilliant sunshine, hailstones and snow in quick succession many times over, all carried towards us on a bitterly cold wind. We parked the car and made our way down the steeply snaking road and departed from the way onto a hummock. There we stopped and watched the squalls race across the twelve miles between Scotland and Ireland and the curtains of hail showers as they floated eerily in our direction for as long as we could bear the chill.

This was where ships passed in great numbers during WW2 making their way in convoys from Liverpool via the Isle of Mann and then out across the Atlantic for vital supplies, dodging German U-boats and air attacks as they went. Having been unaware of this the last time I visited a few years ago I was suddenly struck by the vision of this place as a naval highway at that time, choc-a-bloc with activity. The Scottish coast there is inhospitable in the extreme and many ships have foundered thereupon, hence the lighthouse built in 1788 by Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the great and wonderful author Robert Louis Stevenson.

But on the 2nd of July 1940 in the early hours of the day, the Arandora Star passed through that channel with a cargo of mostly innocent Italian internees and German refugees from Nazi Germany. I stood on the hillside and imagined their ship sneaking past a moonlit coast and passing on into the dark unknown on their unprotected passage to Canada and forced exile. In the British panic in the face of Mussolini’s partnership with Hitler on the 10th of June of that year, no convoy was afforded them and shortly after Malin Head they were spotted by G√ľnther Prien, the commander of the same U-boat which sunk the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow near the outbreak of the war with the loss of 833 lives, mostly ‘boy sailors’. In the hurry to be rid of these Italian internees, who were erroneously perceived as a massive threat, the Arandora Star was not marked with a red cross and was therefore considered fair game and torpedoed. More than 800 people died that night though the exact number is not known, such had been the rush to board them. Several Scottish islands have graves marked ‘Unknown Italian’. Those that survived this ordeal and were picked up by rescue boats were taken to Greenock, transported back to Liverpool and put on another ship bound for Australia.

How strange to stand on that spot and see in my mind’s eye this huge ship passing into its darkest night.

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