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Military memories

15 May 2015


CHILDREN, animals, and elderly military veterans - there is an impish quality to those who have faced the trauma of war, which makes them among the most delightfully unruly of interviewees. Radio 5 Live's coverage of the VE Day Service of Thanksgiving (Sunday) featured several; and, as Chris Warburton discovered, there is little control that can be exercised over the mischievous or the verbose once a question has been asked.

The star of the show was Geoff Harwood, whose tales of campaigns in North Africa and Europe made for the best radio of the week. But poor Warburton, presumably on a tight schedule, must have got distracted. "Am I boring you?" Mr Harwood asked, with the assertiveness of a teacher upbraiding a naughty child. Master Warburton had the good sense to let Mr Harwood's story run its course.

A good thing he did, since the last section was the best bit. Having served for nearly 4000 days in the army, at his final decommissioning he received a letter from the army finance board, declaring that he had been paid for one day too many, and would he please refund the extra pay, amounting to 55 pence. The army has, in this respect alone, yet to receive its due from Mr Harwood.

For those growing up in the post-war era, the relatively neat European narrative of East-West division followed by détente is becoming ever more confused. Take the story of Georgia, told in Assignment (World Service, Thursday of last week). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia has established itself as a secular state, going so far as to place a ban, in 2005, on religious symbols in schools. Yet, as reported by Natalia Antelava, schools in Tbilisi are crammed full of icons.

The Orthodox Church in Georgia is in the ascendant: new churches are springing up everywhere, and minority groups are starting to feel uncomfortable. The movement is strongly Russophile, and brings with it some ugly characteristics. In May 2013, a pro-gay-rights demonstration was attacked by demonstrators, several of them Orthodox priests. The scene, Antelava reports, was Pythonesque in its absurdity, and yet also effective. There have been no more such demonstrations since.

In The Glass Delusion (Radio 4, Friday), the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips introduced us to a psychological phenomenon that expresses something of the confusion of the modern world. Patients suffering from the said delusion believe themselves to be so fragile that they will break when touched, and so transparent that people can see through them. Reports of the delusion date back to the 17th century, when glass production became a feature of the domestic environment.

That our delusions make use of the materials familiar to us was one of the many fascinating insights of this programme; such that, in the late 19th century, the unbalanced might imagine that they were made of cement; and, since the Cold War, paranoia is directed at surveillance technology. But the delusion also speaks to a more fundamental concern about our vulnerability to the gaze of outsiders. To God, all things are known; but otherwise we prefer to keep the glass smoky.

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