Polenta, one of the horrors of war

I stood staring at the salad shelves and wondering what I should think about during a two-minute silence
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The Independent Online

On Saturday morning my wife and I had just entered the Sainsbury's in nearby Frome, Somerset, and were looking carefully at the salad produce (my wife has taken a firm dislike to lollo rosso and won't buy any packet in which it lurks, as she thinks it is the polystyrene padding of the salad world) when a woman's voice came over the Sainsbury's intercom saying.

On Saturday morning my wife and I had just entered the Sainsbury's in nearby Frome, Somerset, and were looking carefully at the salad produce (my wife has taken a firm dislike to lollo rosso and won't buy any packet in which it lurks, as she thinks it is the polystyrene padding of the salad world) when a woman's voice came over the Sainsbury's intercom saying.

"Today is Armistice Day, the time is now 11 o'clock and we would like to ask you to join us in observing a two-minute silence in honour of those who sacrificed their lives for us in two world wars..."

I thought this was very brave for a supermarket. People don't usually listen to announcements, and even if we were listening, there was a chance that we might totally ignore them and just go on shopping.

Not at all, as it turned out. Everyone behaved immaculately. Everyone stood motionless as the seconds ticked away, rather movingly, except of course for a few small children who hadn't the faintest idea what was going on and mucked around a bit. But otherwise I was very impressed by the calmness of the people of Frome, as I stood staring at the salad shelves and wondering what I should be thinking during a two-minute silence.

What I should have been thinking about was my grandfather, Major William Miles Kington, who was shot dead by the Germans in 1917 and left my father fatherless at the age of eight. My grandfather was in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the same time as Robert Graves and also as Frank Richards, who wrote the classic "Old Soldiers never Die", but my grandfather never lived to have the chance to write books or do anything like that, only to grow the bristling moustache which is the chief image I have of him (although I did once get a letter from a very old lady who remembered meeting him as a girl and being impressed by his piano-playing).

What I found myself thinking of instead was Claud Cockburn. Claud Cockburn was the radical, often Communist and always irreverent journalist who was one of the father figures of Private Eye and, allegedly, the author of the immortally boring headline: "Small Earthquake In Chile: Not Many Dead". His son Alex, now a similarly irreverent and radical journalist in America, was at school with me in Scotland, though I could never make out why a radical chap like Claud should send his son to boarding school... Anyway, Claud was often sent for by the headmaster to know when he was going to pay his backlog of school fees, and he arrived one autumn weekend autumn to see Alex and to do some explaining to the head.

"It was awful in the headmaster's house," he said to us when he emerged. "Not the money stuff. I can handle that. But I found myself cloistered with five or six stuffy middle-class parents before I went in, and I did my best to chat to them and amuse them while we were all together, but they wouldn't say a word back. Very standoffish, I thought. Then I discovered that I had been talking throughout the two-minute silence, and none of the bastards had told me what I was doing."

Remembering this took about a minute, and I had another minute to fill in, so I thought about my grandfather again, and then I wondered what anyone would think if they came into Sainsbury's during this two-minute silence and found everyone in the shop motionless ("Nerve gas attack! Armed hold-up! Alien invasion - everyone paralysed while they abduct the children!") and then I thought about my wife's aversion to lollo rosso again and suddenly remembered that this was not the first recorded instance of hatred of an Italian speciality, because in the First World War many of the Germans being held prisoner in Italy had revolted against being fed polenta, which they so hated that they called it " Gelbgefahr" ("yellow peril"). I too find polenta a total waste of time, so I felt that...

"It is now 11.02 - thank you very much," said the voice. Everyone came back to life.

"What were you thinking of?" asked my wife.

I was going to tell her that I was feeling very sorry for the Germans in the Great War, but it might have sounded a bit odd so I said that I was thinking about my grandfather.

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