Upstairs in a drawer is a tin of old family photographs. It is a gold and rather scratched Coronation tin depicting a young Queen, jam-packed full of old black and white images, some identified, most of them not.
Inside are random photographs not thought special enough to be placed in the family albums. Or perhaps, in the case of my grandad, photographs he didn’t want to be reminded of. Hidden among the hundreds therein is a little book of sepia images that I only recently discovered.
At first glance it is a bizarre collection of an uninteresting subject. Picture after picture of a desolate wasteland with twisted metal and piles of rubble, the occasional human figure caught on camera, but mostly of a barren landscape. It could easily be mistaken as a building site part cleared after post war demolition. Until you read the unmistakable, elegant, well practiced handwriting of my grandfather . Hiroshima, 1946.
One of my greatest regrets is he never showed them to me or spoke of his experiences there. But the story of how he came to be there is an incredible one that I thought I might share with you.
Firstly, it was my grandad’s name which set him apart from other young boys growing up in an industrial village on the outskirts of Bradford. Swire Ackroyd. From a long line of village blacksmiths, a young Swire found himself, like so many local boys, bound for the mill. And there he might have stayed if an accident involving a wool machine left him without part of his hand.
As a result he was transferred to Swan Arcade, that much lamented ornate structure housing the offices of some of Bradford’s most important businesses, later torn down by city planners who should have known better. There a young Swire with his leather bound hand soon discovered he had a bent for languages and so, along with his young bride, Emily, he set off on an adventure selling cloth that took him to Europe, India, Malaysia and eventually Japan where they lived for several years.
When my father was born in Paris in the late twenties they came home. Business was struggling in the Great Depression and family legend has it Grandad went bankrupt when his business partner ran off with what was left of the money. They settled in Barnoldswick where he became a not very successful egg farmer surrounded by trinkets from his travels that ranged from delicate lace chair backs from Brussels to Samarai swords from Japan. As a young girl it was all a bit strange. But then grandad was always what you might call a funny fish. Only after his death did I learn why.
After the end of the war Grandad answered an advert in a national newspaper for Japanese speaking civilians to help with the rehabilitation of prisoners from the Burma railway.
The atrocities he witnessed were never spoken about, though like so many from that generation he refused to own anything made in Japan until he died, apart from those bloodied horrific swords presented to him in ceremonial surrender.
On the tiled fireplace there was a flattened glass pop bottle picked up from the wreckage of Hiroshima. No one ever spoke about it or why he went there just a few months after the atom bomb was dropped. But I do know Grandad became a pacifist as a result of what he witnessed. The explosion wiped out 90 per cent of the city killing more than 100,000 people, mostly civilians, instantly. Three days later a second atomic bomb, with the same devastating consequences, was dropped on Nagasaki. The war was officially over when the Japanese surrendered in September 1945. Grandad was sent by the Christian organisation Toc H two months later.
This week the Pope visited both Japanese cities to call for a global abolition of nuclear weapons, describing the “unspeakable horror” that my grandfather witnessed all those years ago. I don’t know what my grandfather would have thought about his message. He may, like me, have believed the ultimate deterrent must be preserved. I do know the suffering he witnessed of the British prisoners of war at the hands of the Japanese was the reason he refused to have anything made in Japan in the house.
But there must also be some reason why, carefully preserved in an old tin box, is a little album of bleak photographs of a desolate landscape showing the destruction caused by man’s inhumanity to man. I simply know too, if he kept them hidden all these years they were important to him. And I too can never throw them away.