"Whats the matter?” Yesterday My wife walked into the room to see me, hunched and rubbing my eyes in front of a black screen and rolling credits.
This was abnormal. There was no sport on and I wasn't despairing at how horrible everyone seems to be in the second series of Doctor Foster.
It's not often I cry watching TV. Like many in the developed world I am probably overly sensitive to my own suffering and somewhat de-sensitized to that of others. But occasionally something strikes a nerve.
In this case my friend Dave had recommended I watch an episode of Channel 4's World War II's Great Escapes: The Freedom Trails. It was all about Operation Galia; a story of courage, slaughter and resilience in the mountains of Italy during a particularly dark period in this young nation’s history.
Although utterly remarkable it is also the kind of story that was probably repeated across Europe in every land, at various times throughout the second world war. It is certainly the sort of programme to pique my interest; instructive and moving, based in a land about which I know a bit and care a lot, and with a few mountains thrown in. The finale of the episode includes an emotional meeting, and right-thinking human would be excused for blubbing.
But, it was the memory of my own family that actually brought me to tears; the few stories my grandmother recounted of suffering, poverty and fear that the war brought to rural Italy.
As they spoke of the Nazi’s moving into villages I remembered my Nonna describing the crunching sound of jackboots on the flag-stoned lanes outside her home.
When they spoke of the rastrellamento (the sweeping and rounding up of civilians for execution) I recalled my grandfather refusing to wear Mussolini’s black shirt and the divisions war created even between brothers.
When they described the SAS men’s escape across the mountains I thought of Nonna’s brother - my great-uncle Ernesto; a legendary partisan mountain courier, hiding in their tiny house, his fingers blown off by a grenade from a secret store. Personal pain and suffering relegated in the face of greater horrors.
As I watched the son of an English serviceman meet the Italian family that had hidden his father from the Nazi’s I cried some more. I cried at the beauty of the human spirit, the generosity and empathy that we are able to feel and, more importantly, act upon.
I also cried with pride at the thought of Ernesto; a modest, quiet and ordinary TV repair man. A man who kept himself to himself but a man who had touched the lives of thousands with his utterly selfless bravery. A small man, in a small village, in rural Italy. A man whose funeral brought people out from nearby communities and filled the streets with a crowd of a thousand or more.
They had not forgotten. Neither must we.
If you want to watch this episode or others in the series I would recommend it. The Operation Galia episode is here.