Aurora Magazine

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Come Dine With Me!

Updated 19 Jan, 2021 01:45pm
My dinner with my grandfather, Horace, and his two older brothers.

It is disconcerting to look at the photo below because Christopher is the spitting image of my late father, also called Christopher. A fourth brother, Max, was too young to fight. However, his house was hit by a V2 rocket in 1945. He was dug out of the wreckage alive, but his wife and eldest child were killed

The brothers born to Christopher and Ellen Frances Saunders and brought up at Gladstone Avenue, East Ham, London E12. Ellen Frances died in 1956. Probate valued her estate at 1791 pounds 17 Shillings and 10 pence. Not bad for an East End gal. She had experienced, in adult life, sad losses. I know the facts, but I have no idea what that feels like.

The last photo of the Saunders brothers together in 1916. A year later Christopher (centre) and Sidney (right) would be killed in the trenches and Horace would be a prisoner of war
The last photo of the Saunders brothers together in 1916. A year later Christopher (centre) and Sidney (right) would be killed in the trenches and Horace would be a prisoner of war

My dinner venue would have to be somewhere properly London and traditional – an eel and pie shop. There are a few left, but not many. Jellied eels were once a working-class dish. But eels are now rare and are eaten smoked in posh restaurants. British food along with accents and clothes have always been bound up with the British class system. What you ate and even what you called your meals was a marker of where you sat in the hierarchy.

A hot topic with the brothers Saunders would be the social change brought about by crisis. I expect they would remind me that the 14-18 War started with a spirit of optimism among the “Tommys” (ordinary soldiers), who believed that war would be “over by Christmas” much as we now think that Covid-19 will be vanquished by vaccines over the next year.

History made a fool of the “over by Christmas” prediction and followed it up with a sucker punch in the form of the Spanish flu from 1917-1921. Seven years of mass slaughter of young men and premature death from a disease that also hit the young hard. One year of Covid-19 ! That is not a big deal. Not yet. Covid-19 needs to be followed up by (for example) the disruption wrought by extreme weather brought on by climate change or a war between the USA and China. That might really shake things up. Currently the impacts of Covid-19 are still shallow. Besides most Brits are now in services, rather than working in factories. So, about 70% of them are shielded from disease and unemployment by the ability to work remotely.

I expect class would be a hot topic. The brothers would point out that the decade before the war was roiled by class conflict, strikes and growing violence in Ireland. A civil war was possible. War against an external enemy- Germany -pulled all classes together. Public school boys (sons of the elite) were sacrificed in the trenches in great numbers as they were the officers and led their men over the top.

Winning two ‘world wars’ enabled the old elites to cling on. Their disdain for ‘“trade’ and ‘businessmen’ has, however, proved disastrous. By contrast, Germany lost two wars and so had to reinvent its constitution and the social contract between all classes. It is now the economic powerhouse of Europe.

What hope then? Technology is dissolving some of the ancient divides and bastions of privilege. The digital revolution has made entrepreneurship cool and young. The best talents no longer just want to enter the ‘respectable’ professions. The brothers would point out though that the industrial revolution was a bigger technological revolution than anything yet produced by digital. That produced a new elite of industrialists. But they aspired to be toffs, buying landed estates and succumbing to ‘the aristocratic embrace.’

I expect that the bothers would also say that the elites are still in charge. Two of our last three prime ministers have been old Etonians. Both overconfident bluffers – one a PR man (Cameron) and the other a muck racking journalist (Johnston).

My grandfather, Horace Royce Saunders (always called Horry by his wife Ivy), died in 1983 aged 84. He was a silent figure throughout all my childhood. He always wore a three-piece suit with a tie and plastered down his hair around a sharp centre parting, as he is in the picture. He liked to do the washing up to avoid conversation.

When he was released in 1918 he was emaciated and thought he might die of starvation. His friend had bolted down a loaf of bread and died an agonising death as it expanded in his stomach. That was the only story he told me. I think he thought it would be too distressing to say more. This imaginary dinner would be the time to ask. He would of course not be drinking. When he returned home he signed ‘the pledge’ -a temperance movement vow to abstain from drink- and he did not touch a drop for the rest of his life.

During his last illness he was unable to tame his hair with Brylcreem and it became apparent that he really had curly hair, like me.

Julian Saunders is a strategist, writer and teacher. He was CEO of a creative agency (WPP’s Red Cell) and has worked for the UK government and Google.