When we set out for the family holiday, we had no idea that survivors of Dunkirk had just arrived in Rhyl. Nobody in Mrs. McCann's redbrick boardinghouse on the front said anything about the arrivals; they didn't know, and wartime censorship didn't encourage people to talk anyway. Our first day on the beach I bullied my younger brothers — ten, four, and going on two — into helping me build a huge wall of sand to keep out the advancing Irish Sea, while Mum sat in a deck chair knitting and Dad read the newspaper. My father, a steam train driver, had worn himself out taking munitions trains through the blackness of wartime Britain, but he could never sit in a deck chair for long. He would inhale the salt air for ten minutes, then declare we should swim, kick a soccer ball, or join an impromptu beach cricket match. The next bright morning, when I hoped to build a bigger, better sand wall, Dad was restive again. He suggested we should all go for a brisk walk along the sands to work up an appetite for Mrs. McCann's lunch. My mother and brothers preferred to idle by the paddling pool, so with ill grace I fell in beside him. Not only could he not sit still for long, he was compulsively gregarious. Everyone else on the beach was getting on with their seaside relief from factory shifts and holding a family together in the stress of war. To my frustration, when we had gone beyond the pier, Dad saw these sprawling clumps of men, isolated from the holiday crowds, and he walked along to find out who they were. I can see him now squatting among them, offering a cigarette here and there. At thirty- nine, he must have been several years older than most of them, but you would never have known it, so weary and haggard were they. I was always embarrassed by Dad's readiness to strike up conversations with strangers, but Dad moved among the groups of soldiers most of the morning, and I tagged along.
We had been encouraged to celebrate Dunkirk as some kind of victory. A Daily Mirror front page I'd seen pinned up in our boardinghouse had the headline "Bloody Marvellous!" How was it, then, Dad found nothing marvelous, only dejection, as he moved among the men?
Only two years later, when my ambitions to be a newspaper reporter flowered, did I understand that Dad was doing what a good reporter would do: asking questions, listening. It never occurred to me to take a note and write it up in my diary, but to this day I remember the sadness of the soldiers who had seen such havoc on that other beach and who knew, too, that they owed their lives to the countless acts of heroism of the rear guard who fought to the last man to keep the escape corridor open.