Argus title : Nana Moon helps us to remember

Nana Moon is dead. Or rather Hilda Braid, the actor who played Nana Moon has died.

Generally, I don’t enjoy soaps – but, when she was in Eastenders, even I watched without fail. There was something about the relationship between Hilda Braid and Shane Ritchie, who played her screen grandson Alfie Moon, which was both believable and riveting. Both had charisma and extraordinary charm. She was everyone’s idea of a perfect grandma.

Braid’s portrayal of a woman lapsing into dementia was heartrending and particularly moving for me because both my parents were similarly afflicted. At the time, I hoped that Nana Moon’s slow decline due to Alzheimer’s would become a major story line. I thought it would have been a wonderful way to educate the public about this devastating disease. I remember feeling badly let down when the scriptwriters stepped back from this.

I did not know then that Hilda Braid herself had Alzheimer’s Disease. It must have taken extraordinary courage to play the part when she was losing her memory. She must, at times, have been terrified.

Towards the end she struggled to remember even the simplest lines, including the famous “Do you want a cup of tea, Alfie?” Her old friend Brian Ralfe, who cared for her in the last years of her life, describes how she would have to go over her scenes again and again and often came home from the studios very late. She bore it with good humour. When Brian asked her why they’d kept her, she’d reply “It’s the others Darling, they just can’t remember their lines.”

Every year the Alzheimer’s Society organises Memory Walks around the country. Whoever thought of them was truly inspired, for they help people honour both the lives and lost memories of sufferers, while at the same time reaffirming the importance of remembrance.

The last Memory Walk along the seafront of Brighton & Hove took place in September.
Hilda Braid took part, albeit in a wheelchair. This was sad to see for she was once an accomplished dancer and, in her day, could have quickstepped from the Peace Statue to the Pier.

I hope Brighton & Hove will one day commemorate Hilda Braid with a blue plaque – though right now this would seem far too prosaic a memorial. I never saw her in real life, but on screen she seemed to me like quicksilver.

In this city of personalised public transport, we could perhaps name a bus after her. However, letters would not be enough. We would have to have a picture of her as Nana Moon – for in this role she was the nation’s ideal Grandma, loyal to her grandchildren and to her soldier husband who died during the war.

The award-winning scene in which she and her grandson visit the war grave of her husband in Normandy is widely accepted to be one of the most heart-wrenching in any soap. Though it was fictional it tapped into the nation’s collective memory.

Few families escaped loss in the two world wars. And, for most young people, until recently, it was the experiences of beloved grandparents which first informed them of the realities of war. Now, of course, increasing numbers of young people have been politicised by the experience of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This year, in advance of Remembrance Sunday, the Royal British Legion reported that in the previous 12 months there had been a 30% rise in the number of young people seeking its help. There is widespread public scepticism about British military involvement, but at the same time increasing concern for the young soldiers themselves – and the families to which they return.

For the first time this year Remembrance Sunday seems to have been as much to do with those who have survived as those who have been lost. Until a few years ago, the media barely mentioned the thousands who have been wounded and maimed in recent armed combat, still less those driven to despair by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Few people admitted that in some of our modern wars, more soldiers die by suicide after the conflict than are killed by enemy action during it. Now attitudes are changing.
The day after Remembrance Sunday, Channel 4 screened a hard-hitting documentary about men it called “The Forgotten Heroes : The Not Dead”. It used specially-commissioned poems by Simon Armitage to help tell the story of three soldiers who served in different wars. All suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Simon Armitage commented: “…it was appalling to hear how little help these men have received, many of the younger servicemen turning to drink and drugs to blot out the images of war, many of them attempting suicide and, in the absence of professional, occupational support, having to turn to voluntary agencies such as Combat Stress.”
Through these 3 shattered lives, the documentary explored the human cost of armed conflict to soldiers and their families. It revealed just how difficult it is for such men to fit back into society. Rob said “It wasn’t as though we wasn’t ready to go to war. Everyone was fully prepared. It was coming home that people wasn’t ready for.”
Cliff (78) joined the British army in 1951 and at 19 fought in Malaya. During his service, Cliff was involved in an ambush in the jungle, and saw many of his friends killed. Every night for the past 50 years, he has relived this incident in his mind. He describes it as like a cassette tape in the back of his head, replaying the terrible events over and over again.
Rob (23) was part of an attack on a bank, in which an Iraqi man was shot as he burst through the doors. Rob never told Simon Armitage if he fired the fatal round, but he described how, in the days following the incident, he had to walk across the dead-man’s “blood-shadow”.
Rob says “There are days when I think I’m just scum; days when I can’t face the world”. When he was young he had romantic views of war. Now he says: “The people back home, they just can’t comprehend what you’ve been through…”. Rob drinks heavily to block out the memories, the nightmares and the flashbacks.
Eddie served with UN peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, and witnessed the most appalling atrocities, without the capacity to stop them. Despite being a peace-keeper, he was shot and severely injured. He said “I was a different person before I got shot. I was a young lad, 19, out-going, happy, the world was my oyster. By the time I got out of hospital, I was depressed, I was disfigured, I was injured, disabled, useless.”
Eddie was discharged due to injury and depression. He received some counselling and was sent on an anger management course, but this did not begin to address the damage which had been done to him. The cost to his family was terrible. Many times his wife Laura fled the house with their children for fear of what he might do. Once he attempted to strangle her.
Armitage said “.. he once took a revolver out into a field and fired round after round of blanks against his head. He tried to hang himself from a tree, but the branch couldn’t bear his weight.”
Eddie acknowledges that his wife Laura has been his lifeline. Simon Armitage’s poem “The Manhunt” is based upon her own account of her struggle to save her husband.
“After the first phase,
After passionate nights and intimate days,
Only then would he let me trace
The frozen river which ran through his face,
Only then would he let me explore
The blown hinge of his lower jaw,
And handle and hold
The damaged, porcelain collar-bone,
And mind and attend the fractured rudder of shoulder-blade,
And finger and thumb the parachute silk of his punctured lung.
Only then could I bind the struts
And climb the rungs of his broken ribs,
And feel the hurt
Of his grazed heart.
Skirting along,
Only then could I picture the scan,
The foetus of metal beneath his chest
Where the bullet had finally come to rest.
Then I widened the search,
Traced the scarring back to its source
To a sweating, unexploded mine
Buried deep in his mind,
Around which every nerve in his body had tightened and closed.
Then, and only then, did I come close.”

One cannot help thinking of the many hundreds or even thousands of Lauras there must be in this country, who with their children are struggling to survive. They are the invisible victims of modern warfare.

Contact “Combat Stress” on 01372-841600 and The Alzheimer’s Society on 01273-726266.

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