At the end of World War II, Derek Parker Little, now 87, visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. “I remember going in to look at the gas chambers. I was expecting little rooms, but they were huge.” That is all he will say about it. But the experience stayed with him. And it upsets him to think, all these years later, war is still on the agenda.
“We are now discussing war again. It seems to me, the human race is going round in circles.”
Parker Little came to New Zealand from his native England more than 40 years ago. These days he lives in a little cottage in Inglewood and spends his time painting. Those paintings fill his shed. One stands out. It is bigger than the rest and war is its theme. No End in Sight in 2004 was painted after extensive research of uniforms, helmets and other such details, he says. “All the other information just came. Once the idea came, it came fast. I didn’t attempt to continue [listing the wars] after 2003. I thought I’d said it. I don’t want to change it again. It says what it says.”
The picture hung in a gallery in Christchurch for a while until it was returned to him two days before the February 2011 Canterbury earthquake.
Mr Parker Little’s plans to study art as a young man were halted by war.
He was at boarding school in Canterbury, England, when World War II broke out. His father, who worked in the Customs Department, was sent to Aberdeen. His mother was at home in London and his sister was at college in Torquay.
“My father then said the Germans are likely to come any minute so we have to get together.” So, Parker Little and his mother both moved to Aberdeen. Later he made a trip to London with his father to collect belongings from their house, which had been bombed. “You almost accepted it as the norm. I think I would have been surprised if it hadn’t been bombed. We knew it had been damaged.” The windows had all been blown in, but his mother’s china cabinet was still intact.
“We opened the china cabinet – a Queen Anne thing with glass front – all the little triangular windows in the front, the little copper or brass key, tiny thing, were still in place. We started to get the china out and when we opened the lid of the sugar bowl it was full of shards of glass from the window. Yet everything was intact in the cabinet and it was closed. We kept discussing that over and over again and we kept coming up with wild conjectures . . . we never solved it.”
Back in Aberdeen, Parker Little was on the verge of going to university to study art but, when he was “18-ish”, he was called up. He is vague on dates and numbers. “What year is it now?” he jokes. “I wasn’t that concerned at the time, whatever age I was.
“I joined the RAF because at boarding school all the people joined a thing called the ACT, training for flying, and became a cadet. So the RAF was the deal. I suppose it was snobbery too.” He did his initial training in Scotland before going to Blackpool in England. Then he was put into the “No 1 CAEU” – Casualty Air Evacuation Unit, which had ambulances, three-ton Dodges and a fleet of DC3s that carried the stretchers.
The unit went in convoy across Europe – Belgium, France, Holland and into Germany – picking up the wounded. “My memory is hazy and I think that is deliberate. It wasn’t good. The RAF didn’t pick up just RAF, we picked up anybody. Then they were flown back to the UK.”
He doesn’t know what happened to any of the servicemen he helped along the way. Once they were airlifted out, he never saw them again. “I was a driver and a bit of a gunner. There were canvas holes in the roof of the cab of these little trucks and we had machine guns to ward off enemy aeroplanes. It was great fun. Never a dull moment.”
He never fought in a battle, he says. “My war was not as bad as all that.” By the end Parker Little had made his way to Germany. His unit worked its way back to Brussels, before being sent back to Britain. But, while the war was over in Europe, it was still raging in the Pacific and Parker Little went into training to go to Okinawa in Japan as part of Tiger Force, he says.
“But then somebody in America dropped an atomic bomb on Japan and we didn’t have to go.” Instead, they all went to India for “three or four” years. “I don’t want to go into memories of India because I didn’t care for India at all.”
He used to go to the Lighthouse Cinema in Calcutta, which was air conditioned and had a band playing in the lounge area. The building was huge, he says, and the back wall was either stone or concrete blocks and backed on to the market place.
“So the back of the Lighthouse where we were sitting in our enormous comfort was the fourth wall for 250 mud huts in the middle of this Calcutta slum.” It was a turbulent time when India was in the process of becoming independent from Britain and Pakistan was formed.
The country was in chaos and one of Parker Little’s main tasks was to try to stop the rioting.
“We had armoured cars and we were posted around strategic corners. But most of the work was left deliberately for the Indian police force. They were all armed. I saw an Indian man, in his uniform, all immaculate of course, with his gun go into the front of the market place, with I don’t know how many thousand people all with sticks and in a state of absolute fury. He fired one shot from his revolver in the air and they ran away. It was a most unpleasant experience. I do believe that this has impacted on me now and what I believe.”
Back in Britain, Parker Little joined an advertising agency and eventually became a creative director in Sydney. “The whole concept of commerce, having just been through a war, it disgusted me when I was in Sydney. Commerce to me now is a dirty word.”
He came to New Zealand in 1969 and made commercials for a while before he opened an art gallery and started painting again.
The art is a vehicle – a way to tell the message, he says.
“War is indicative that we have the wrong values. There is just endless repetition.
“My paintings are stories. They are telling a tale. They’re not just paintings. The times that have given me the greatest pleasure are when I’ve seen children gathered round one of my paintings arguing and discussing. That to me was absolute bloody heaven. I watched and watched. They were discussing bits and pieces about it, as I intended. Another I remember was a girl sitting on the ground by a painting and crying.”
Parker Little is putting together a DVD and is looking at publishers to get the message of his art out there.
“It’s all part of the story I want to tell the children. The majority of my work, I want to get it on general display, is aimed at the next generation. My biggest hope is my work will get into the curriculum at schools to show today’s generation we can’t go on doing what we are doing.”
And not just regarding war, he is also concerned about the environment. It’s become an obsession, he says.
“There is repetition. We go in complete circles all the time. The destruction of wildlife, forests, it’s all for money. We’ve lost our sense of value. My biggest concern is there won’t be a world. One painting suggests there is something wrong with the human race. Do we have a faulty gene?”
Information courtesy of the Taranaki Daily News, ‘A brush with death’, by Helen Harvey, 20.4.2013