A UKRAINE MISSION
“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done.”
Sydney Carton (A Tale Of Two Cities)
In Dickens’s tale of London and Paris during the French Revolution, his hero, Sydney Carton, in an act of selfless heroism, substitutes himself in place of another on the execution platform of the guillotine. His final words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do then I have ever done” is probably one of the best-known quotations in English literature.
As personal stories of heroism from the Ukrainian War begin to emerge, Sydney Carton’s words will strike a chord and resonate with a shocked but deeply-inspired world looking on helplessly. What would I have done? What could I have done. And what can I do now? These metaphysical questions will have beset each and every one of us as the dreadful events in Ukraine unfold, those of us, that is, who do not bury our heads in the sand and give thanks to the English Channel.
The answer to the question, what can I do, is, sadly, precious little. There are charitable organisations to which we can contribute but the gesture seems pitifully small and insignificant. “Every little helps’, as the Tesco slogan goes, so perhaps we should not be so disdainful of minor gifts of aid. It just seems that the enormity of the political, military and social catastrophe being visited on the Ukrainian people surpasses all human understanding and we feel impotent and paralysed. Then I heard news about someone – a very good friend, as it happens – who was not paralysed with inaction; he got off his backside and did something concrete, worthwhile, constructive. Peter Hughes would scoff at any suggestion of heroics but there was something undeniably gallant in his action.
It all started at a jazz evening at The Elms, a well-known local prep school. Well, of course it did. All good stories start at jazz evenings. Peter’s son, Ben, had heard about convoys of lorries, laden with supplies for Ukrainian refugees, making their way to the borders of the country from all parts of Europe. Why don’t we do the same, he suggested. A friend of his agreed and together they made the necessary enquiries and sorted out the logistics. Then his friend suffered an unfortunate accident – he broke his arm – and had to pull out. “Man down! We’re now a driver short, Dad. How about you taking his place?” suggested Ben. Peter was horrified at the idea. “Absolutely not!” he replied, “The only driving I do is in Malvern. Besides, your mother would divorce me if I went.” That was unlikely but Pippa’s objection was genuine and fearful.
Heroism – a true definition of the word – needs a fitness test in my opinion. An infantryman who charges a heavily defended enemy position may be motivated by a reckless desire for individual glory or he may be, quite simply, off his rocker and seemingly oblivious to personal danger. The history of warfare is littered with such stories of personal sacrifice. But surely the brave man is someone who really doesn’t want to do something, because he can clearly see the potential danger to himself, but nonetheless goes ahead and does it…..because he feels that is the right thing to do. Can anyone honestly deny the nobility of the Hugheses’ road trip?
Apparently, the Polish community in Loughborough had collected a large stack of supplies – clothes, blankets, medicines, food, nappies and just about everything else a homeless and desperate refugee would need – in order to be transported to a contact in north Poland, close to where the refugees were flooding. But they needed volunteer drivers and so far Ben’s efforts to secure a replacement for his stricken friend had proved unsuccessful. Once more, he turned to his father. Peter is the sort of bloke who would do anything for anybody when push comes to shove. He needed no further shoving. He climbed into the driver’s cab.
Not here in Malvern but in Loughborough where Ben had hired two Transit vans (two-and-a-half tons, for any of my readers who are petrol heads). The supplies were loaded onto the vans, all carefully packaged and meticulously labelled, as well as onto the trailer of Ben’s Defender. So there were three of you? I had evidently missed that point. “We set off on the Saturday,” Peter said, “A mere two weeks after Ben’s original idea first was mooted. It’s extraordinary what the younger generation can organise with just a phone.”
The journey was long and tedious but uneventful. That nothing untoward happened on the route out and back does not in any way diminish the resolve and fortitude of those engaged in the enterprise. They were not to know that a squadron of Mig-29 fighter jets would not strafe the convoy or a band of highwaymen would not waylay them and relieve them of their precious cargo. To say nothing of the accidents and mishaps that could have occurred on such a long journey. “They also serve who only stand and wait,” wrote Milton in Sonnet 19, praising those who happen not to see active service (in the name of God, in his case) yet loyally support the cause. The Loughborough Cavalcade met no danger but they might have.
What was the journey like? “Simple. No traffic jams, no hold-ups, minimal border checks, occasional cursory x-ray search just to make sure we weren’t importing a lorry-load of AK47 assault rifles. Piles of nappies could not be mistaken for deadly weaponry, could they?” I guess not. They drove to Folkestone, took the Tunnel and stayed the night in Dunkerque. The next day, they drove to Berlin for another overnight stop before heading into Poland for their rendezvous in the north of the country. Where?“Stargard..” Stargard’s only claim, as far as I can tell, to anything of historical note is that it was the site of Stalag II, a well-known prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War. “I’m not surprised,” said Peter, “It’s not the most attractive place on the planet. We passed through the northern parts of Germany and Poland, which are all pretty well industrialised. Nothing much in the way of scenery. Featureless motorways all the way, with just the occasional pit stop at service stations.”
If you stand atop the Malvern Hills and cast your eyes eastwards across the Midlands, the Fens, the North Sea, the Low Countries, over north Germany and Poland, the next geographical point of similar height will be the Ural Mountains in Russia. Of course, you won’t be able to see that far but it’s flat land all the way. Unsurprising therefore that our hardy band of Malvern adventurers were less than impressed by the scenery.
Progress was swift with little or no bureaucratic impediments placed in their way. “Often, you were barely aware that you had crossed a country border.” They spent 10 hours each day behind the wheel, each alone with only his thoughts as company. How did you manage to stay awake? “Books!” announced Peter, with a certain amount of pride, knowing I was an English teacher. Books! Well that would make a change from Romanian lorry drivers ending up in a ditch because they had been on their phone. “Audio books,” he clarified for me. I didn’t know my books had been put on CDs. He ignored my frivolousness. This was a serious business they were undertaking.
Their overnight stops were spent in cheap and cheerful hotels, much like Premier Inns, which were perfectly serviceable and comfortable. Who paid for all this? I mean, petrol is expensive.“We paid for our food and accommodation. But the cost of fuel and hiring the vehicles was done by crowd funding.” Crowd funding? That sounds like a spiffing wheeze. Knocks the gee-gees and the roulette wheel into a tin hat. “Ben did all that. In fact, he raised enough money for two more trips.” Will you be taking the wheel again? “Not jolly likely. I’ve done my bit.” It was hard to disagree.
The collection point in Stargard was deserted, confirming a gnawing fear among the group since they set out, for necessarily plans had been a rather vague and the situation on the ground fluid. To their relief, their contact eventually arrived, together with a rag-tag bunch of helpers, who proceeded to unload the lorries. Their host had but a smattering of English and our band of brothers spoke no Polish so communication was at no more than a basic level. As far as Peter was able to ascertain, the following day, two bigger lorries were scheduled to arrive to be laden with the Loughborough supplies in addition to the stuff still in the warehouse nearby and ferried into Ukraine, just south of Kyiv. Did you get a sense that all this was above board and that the goods would end up where they should? “Well, you have no 100% guarantees but yes, I think we can safely say that what we had brought would be delivered to where it was needed.”
Then, they turned around and made their way home on the same route but in reverse. They arrived back in England on the Wednesday morning. “2,000 miles in four and a half days.” The worst part of the return journey was the M4 in teeming rain. I’ve often experienced the same contrast between driving on the continent and driving in England. All the way up to the Channel Tunnel, you are on immaculately-maintained motorways, with light traffic and attractive service stations that offer edible food. As soon as you emerge from the Tunnel at Folkestone, you run into heavy traffic which soon becomes a jam, and as for the service stations….. You must have been tired after all that driving.“Absolutely knackered. But it had been exciting, something different. Made a change from bridge lessons.” Do you think you made a difference? “Oh, yes!”
And that, in my opinion, makes all the difference.