“Sharp lights from throbbing mills twinkling through winter’s evening haze, and jovial folk, both young and old going home from daily toil. Dear spot! Of Nature’s best, though man hath trespassed far; Such memories sweet still live with me on deserts naked shore”
This is part of a poem written by a Curate of Calverley, the Rev. G.C. Dunning, as he was serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Sinai Peninsula (otherwise known as the sharp end of Egypt) during Christmas 1918. I can imagine this Church of England man far from his Yorkshire home writing this poem in a tent surrounded by sand alone with his pencil. He was thinking of his family, friends and the village he loved and missed whilst serving his country in a far off land with such longing from “deserts naked shore”.
As we settle down to enjoy Christmas with our families or just do it alone with a sprig of holly on the mantelpiece, spare a thought for the police, fire, ambulance, paramedics, nurses, cleaners, care home employees, shop, hotel staff and particularly the military across the world on standby for our safety. Have I left anyone out?
My partners eldest son is a Bradford response officer with West Yorkshire Police. His shift covers 10pm to 7am across 24/25th December. You can imagine – but in reality you’ve no idea.
As you sleep and Santa is on his rounds, Tom will be attending drunken fights, domestics, car crashes, chasing burglars and explaining in the middle of the night to a tired custody sergeant why his arrests are correct. Then there is the paperwork, the hand-over packages to the next shift before shedding his gear, driving home and trying to sleep.
Consequently our Christmas lunch will be somewhat later than yours. But he’ll be there – albeit a tad bleary eyed.
Tom is one of many front line workers who signed up to do this. He married Dionne this year who, like many working wives of officers, understand the pressures her husband comes home with. They have a dog. Tom gets out of the house for fresh air and walks with him to free his mind from the dreadfulness.
My partner Helen works in audiology at Bradford Royal Infirmary and specialises in the testing of children’s hearing. She is one of the medical staff inside an organisation facing what has been described as the greatest threat to humanity for a century. She comes back and vents to me sometimes with tales of staff patience and duress stretched to breaking point.
Another at the coal-face in this particular hospital is Professor John Wright whose The Coronavirus Doctor’s Diary is available on the BBC website. His reports will inform you and perhaps explain why their staff – like my partner – are heroes more than you know.
Amazing as it may appear, the NHS continues to function in good order and finds new ways to do so on a daily basis.
As I’m not as well as I would like, it’s my fortune to sit in these places – my experience to date of NHS treatment has been most positive. When I come across harassed staff, I find a smile and a joke goes a long way. On the odd occasion I find negativity, I use humour and a gentle approach to disinfect it. So do the emergency services and medics. If you’ve ever watched them in action on regular TV documentaries, you’ll have witnessed this.
I believe it’s this calm and personal bedside manner that is so crucial to those they are looking after. As patients we can also play our part in helping to lift their burden by being smiley, patient – and brave.
On Christmas Day I will pick up the phone and call my 99 year old Welsh friend Maisie. Due to Covid, I’ve only been able to see her once since she was admitted in March to a Pudsey care home. She has all her marbles intact although many there do not. So, as a present, a few days ago I delivered a copy of a book she has been longing to read, The Return of The Native by Thomas Hardy. While there, I took the opportunity to thank the staff who look after her 24/7/365.
There is no record of Rev Dunning’s exploits I can find. Like many, his war record may be buried deep within the British Library. Or he may just be one of the many who fought in WW1 and now lies in an unmarked grave in what Rupert Brookes memorably wrote as: “Some corner of a forgotten field that is forever England”
They were far more courageous men than me. But as they went over the top, I suspect their minds were elsewhere with loved ones far away and with new friendships forged in the cauldron of war.
One of my favourite Christmas songs is by the wonderful Mike Harding, a Lancashire folk musician and comedian. His song sums up this feeling perfectly.
I’ll take this opportunity to wish you a personal and very peaceful Christmas.
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