In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Unreasonably, perhaps, I dislike people starting a piece of writing with “The dictionary definition of ’duck’, or whatever, is……” So, I will not start in that way, even if I must confess to frequently checking my Oxford to clarify my understanding. A mask, as I had believed, is a covering for the face, and even in its other forms, like masking tape, it always involves a covering
Facial masks are worn for a variety of reasons. For example, surgeons, and nurses use masks to prevent cross infections. Fencers wear masks to protect themselves from injury during bouts. Others use masks to protect injuries already sustained. I think here particularly about sportsmen and remember the Tottenham captain, Gary Mabbut, who wore a mask for many months after receiving horrific facial injuries from John Fashinu’s malevolent elbow.
My daughter has a continuing interest in Africa, and especially in African tribal masks. During my work in over forty African countries, I built up a varied and interesting collection for her. These masks were traditionally worn to deter and frighten enemies. They certainly frightened Jenny’s children.
Having said that, the main raison d’etre for masks is to hide the face. We can assemble a variety of literary characters who sought to disguise their identities in this way. We start with the Man in the Iron Mask, through Zorro, the Lone Ranger, by way of Batman and Robin, to the Phantom of the Opera. In the real world, criminals frequently used masks to carry out robberies, Ronnie Reagan being a popular villain at one time. This probably started back in the Wild West with the likes of the Jesse James gang, and in the dear long lost days of BC, before computers, little boys would tie their fathers’ handkerchiefs over their mouth and nose as they wielded their cap shooting six guns.
Masked balls were popular at one period, and speak of Regency England or the France of Louis XVI. These ranged from a full facial cover to those coy little numbers held on a slim stick and just covering the eyes. Speaking of which, it has been said that eyes are the windows to the soul, which explains at least some of the reasoning for the donning of sunglasses, sometimes appropriately called shades. In my misspent life I have found shades indispensable for bird watching.
However, having said all of the above, I would submit that the face itself is often the best mask of all. Being described as ‘poker faced’ implies being able to sit and look nonchalant while holding a Royal Flush or four aces with nearly £100 in the middle of the table. As further evidence of this proposition I would like to trot out two of my heroes.
My first hero is the Duke of Wellington who was a member of the aristocracy and a Tory in the old sense of the word. Sending men into battle on perhaps twenty occasions in his career, Wellington commanded on the battlefield in person, sometimes only yards from the enemy. He was wounded by musket balls on three occasions. Rarely did his face reveal his feelings. The mask only slipped twice; once at Badajoz when he stood among the British dead in the main breach in the town’s walls, with tears streaming down his face. The second time was at Waterloo, where, after withstanding the Emperor’s forces unmoved for over eight hours, he again broke down in tears as he rode Copenhagen through the 50,000 dead and injured in a mile square area. As he said, ‘Next to a battle lost, there is nothing more terrible than a battle won.’
And finally to Churchill, a direct descendent of the Duke of Marlborough, the only British military commander to be compared to Wellington. Churchill was, unlike Wellington, an emotional man. Again unlike Wellington, he was deeply in love with his wife and devoted to his children. He suffered a loveless childhood and lost his adored father when Winston was only twenty. His three year old daughter died in 1921 and his adult daughter, Diana, in his 89th year.
Winston was normally incapable of hiding his feelings; his face said all there was to say about him. Yet this remarkable man, truly in my view, the greatest Briton, went from May 1940 to June 1941 as leader of the only European country to oppose Hitler. What did he think? Could he really have believed the messages he gave to the nation in his remarkable soaring oratory? Yet no trace of the fears, the doubts or the uncertainty ever appeared on that normally revealing face. Look at photos of Churchill in the Blitz, Homburg firmly on his head, cigar clenched in his teeth and his lower jaw jutting with defiance. John Kennedy said the Churchill ‘conscripted the English language and sent it into battle.’ He might also have said the same thing about that mischievous baby face. So perhaps a physical mask is not always necessary, but WSC just might have welcomed one at the height of the German Blitz.
Written by my Father B.M