A bit of history

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My good friend Alex in Madagascar looks after the British War Cemetery in Diego Suarez, which unsurprisingly, therefore, is immaculate. Buried there are the soldiers who died liberating Madagascar from the French forces loyal to the Vichy regime in May 1942, an episode I wasn’t even aware of till I visited. You might think this is surprising, since the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was anchored nearby to provide support, and on it was my dad. But like many of his generation, he didn’t speak much about the war, and Diego Suarez, though important, was one among several engagements in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Nor did he actually land in Diego, as he was a Telegraphist Air Gunner and despite the loss of a couple of aircraft, aerial combat itself was not extensive. Just as well perhaps – instead of hearing me tell his story, Alex might have been looking after his grave. Walking round Diego today, it’s difficult to imagine how strategically important it was back then – but a visit to the cemetery brings a sombre reminder.

Previous operations in Africa involving the Free French forces having not gone well, de Gaulle wasn’t informed of the attack on Diego – a slight which had lasting repercussions on his later dealings with Britain and America.The whole of Madagascar didn’t come under Allied control until November. Administration was then returned to the Free French, but the events of the war loosened their grip over the country, and in 1947 the Malagasy were emboldened to rebel. Their bid for independence was brutally crushed, with an estimated 30,000 dead. While the wars of independence in Algeria and Indo-China have received a lot of attention, the Malagasy uprising has been practically airbrushed out of French History. Strange, n’est-ce pas?

Thursday Interview: Dead Rat

– Now, you’re far from your average dead rat which not a lot happens to apart from getting eaten by crows. You were selected to get sent through the post. What was it all about?

– Well, you’d have to ask the person who sent me to get the whole story. All I know is I hadn’t been dead for long, I was still in reasonably good nick, minding my own business as it were, when he scoops me up and –

– So it was a man?

– I’m assuming. I didn’t get a good look. I dare say a woman could do it but it seems like a man’s thing to me. Anyway, he puts me in a box, pretty wrapping paper and all, and next thing I know I’m in the Post Office sorting room. Not a clue where I’m bound nor why. A present for someone? Well, even I would admit there are pleasanter things to receive. Turns out I’m destined for this literary agent, Vivienne Schuster, not a gift at all, but an act of vengeance from a writer she rejected.

– Wow! What was her reaction?

– Well, you can imagine. Shrieks of horror, gasps of amazement that anyone could do such a thing. Eventually everyone laughed and the story became part of literary agency lore.

– And how did you feel about it all?

– It made a change from the usual, I must say. Normally we’re just left to become food for maggots. Even if I did get tossed into a dustbin straight after, at least I got my fifteen minutes of fame. My fellow dead rats were quite envious. And then a few of us got together and set up our own agency, Rent-a-Rat, with the slogan, Bearing a grudge? Give us a nudge! Unfortunately it didn’t catch on.

– No, I don’t suppose many people would actually go through with it, however angry they felt.

– Yes, that’s what our marketing consultant concluded. It’s a shame. It would have been a great way to raise our profile. We suffer from a very poor image. I know a dead anything has a bit of an image problem, but we have a far harder time of it than a budgerigar, say.

– Well, given where you hang out when you’re alive, it’s not all that surprising, is it?

– Personally, I was a field rat. Healthy outdoor life, feeding mostly on grain. Only went inside this house to get warm and then I got poisoned. It’s the ones that live in the sewers that give us all a bad name. I’m not blaming them, mind – we don’t all get our choice of habitat. I’ve heard that some of you lot live off rubbish tips, just like us. But sewers, yeah, it’s a huge handicap to overcome when you’re trying to establish a brand.

– And let’s not forget the plague. That didn’t help your reputation either. I mean the Black Death wiped out a third of the population of Europe!

– And it was started when Mongol forces catapulted a load of dead bodies into the port of Caffi. One of the first recorded instances of biological warfare. So if you want to blame someone, blame the Mongols, not us. Besides, I’d like to point out that we don’t transmit bubonic plague. It comes from the fleas we carry. But being more visible than them, we became convenient scapegoats. We sued for defamation afterwards, but nothing came of it of course.

– Well, it seems you’ve always been singled out for anything ignoble or revolting. And it’s still going on today, if that writer’s anything to go by. Would you agree, though, that if one’s looking for a literary agent, it’s a very bad idea to send them a dead rat?

– I don’t suppose they’d fare any better with a dead budgerigar, frankly. But we’re perfectly lucid, you know, we don’t expect cremation or prayers or what have you. I mean, personally I’m an atheist, so what the hell? But a little respect, I think that’s only reasonable, don’t you?

– Indeed. Thank you, Dead Rat, for your insights.

– My pleasure. Most dead rats aren’t very talkative, you know, so it’s nice to get the opportunity.