Forest Brothers has them. Life has them. What makes a hero? what makes a villain? Is it purely an audience point of view? Does it depend on your background, your origin, your life experience?

I have been traveling recently, a week’s break to Limburg. The hilly part of Holland. It’s a very relaxed area and I like to go to a city like Maastricht, to chill in the city centre in one of the street cafes in the town square. In October, it gets on with life without appearing to be hurried or stressed. I like Holland. We as a nation tend to like the Dutch, but centuries ago they were not allies, but enemies. Rival seafaring nations carving their fortunes along the coasts of the Americas and Pacific. Mutually colonising other nations, whose culture we dismissed, rather than acknowledged as different. Anyway, the Dutch have always been good to me. Dark beer, vla, malted biscuits are welcome, so is an ability to master English that puts our language inadequacies to shame.

We stayed a kilometre from the German city of Aachen. It is so beautiful in its medieval quarter, the centre piece being the magnificent cathedral. Again, we like the place for its calmness and the fact you can walk around without hassle. The cafe culture, with rugs for people to cover their laps and legs on the cooler days. Very civilised. I posted some photos of the interior of the cathedral (its absolutely stunning), the marble walls and gold leaf in the light streaming through stained glass. One comment I received was ‘what did they do to deserve that?’ A back-handed admiration, I think, but for most of my life, my country has always obsessed about the last world war. So, consign a whole nation to the role of villains in perpetuity? Seems a bit harsh. I am not going to condone the former leaders of Germany and the events they created in the 20th Century, but tar a whole nation? Did you know that Wellington’s army at the Battle of Waterloo was a multi-national force, the chief contingents of which were German, Netherlanders and Irish? What about Albert Einstein?

Russian politicians will sound bite from time to time about Baltic ‘fascists’. Anyone who opposed Stalin’s army was by definition with the Germans and consequently dumped in the same category. Estonia’s awful experience in the second world war was a direct consequence of two large nations and their bloody empire-building ambitions. Men joined both sides. Who were the villains and who felt they wanted to defend their homeland? Men were pressed into service by both sides, what was their choice?. The Stalin regime commited heinous crimes and certainly embraced fascism in all but word, but does that make every Russian culpable – past and present? Some of our media here would try and imply that Russia’s activities today mark the return of the darker days. Then they also fawn over Russian dancers who grace our TV screens every Saturday night…Then there’s  Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Nuryev – what was their legacy?

As we drove home through Belgium, we stopped at the town of Poperinge. Very close to Ypres, it holds a poignant reminder of the 1914-1918 war. On the way there, I was so struck by the flatness of the landscape that I queried how men were expected to survive on the ‘over the top’ assaults in the trenches? Where was the cover? It seemed impossible that someone could cast aside life so cheaply. At Poperinge, we visited Talbot House or ‘Toc H’, an establishment set up by a British padre during that time. The large three story building was turned over to be a servicemans club. Soldiers blessed with leave there could visit a place where rank was forgotten. No alcohol, but plenty of tea. A piano, a library and games room all were available there, or people could just chill in the garden. It was a beautiful sunny day when we arrived and the place felt so serene. All thanks to the idea and work of the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton, all those years ago.

On two occasions on our daily visit to the swimming pool, my young son managed to befriend a playmate. One was a Russian boy at the numerous visits to the flume, the other was a German boy in a ‘who can tip who off the float in the swimming pool’ game. The mutual language appeared to be only giggles. It reminded me how we are not born with our own prejudices, they are inherited along life’s journey.

Heroes and villains, they are everywhere. They appear within every nation, every culture. You can judge a person by their nation and your conceptions of it or  make your own decision on an individual by their own actions. It was good of my son to remind me that.