DRIVING back on Monday night from the magnificent production of Birdsong at Salisbury Playhouse this week (see the review on this website, and perhaps you may also see the production), my friend M and I inevitably fell into a rather gloomy conversation about war.
With the storm clouds rattling over the Crimea on the radio and television and the bone-shaking crump of the shells offstage still in our ears it was inevitable, of course.
M’s father was one of those who volunteered at 16 for the Great War, and came through it, although he was injured. I had no close relatives in either war, although an uncle had what was called “a good war” in India in the Second World War, and an uncle by marriage was a courier whose work took him to Belsen at the end of the war.
We had a neighbour in the New Forest who, his wife told my mother, had been gassed in the trenches, but it was never spoken about, although we all understood it was why he was happiest in his garden, when the sun was shining.
There was a Displaced Persons camp on the open heath not far from my first home and the brother of our next-door friends had been a Japanese prisoner-of-war – again, something that was never spoken about. But my own clearest memory of anything to do with the war was the unprecedented sight of my mother tearing up her ration card and dancing round the kitchen. It wasn’t how my mother usually behaved, so it made a big impression on me.
Later, when I was a young and politically-excitable teenager, my French penfriend’s father took us to a former concentration camp near Strasbourg – the only one on French soil.
The impact was indelible and haunting.
Much more recently, we met an Auschwitz survivor who ran a B & B in San Francisco with her husband. More than 40 years after she was released from hell, she had begun to talk about her experiences, and was a regular visiting speaker at schools and colleges, sharing her story to help a new generation to understand something of the past and to learn from it.
In theory the post-war generation grew up in the longest period of peace in history, but that was a fiction, designed to make us feel secure when in reality we live on shifting sands, as has every preceding generation.
The Korean war, Suez, the Bay of Pigs and the terrors of the nuclear arms race, the Berlin Wall and the Vietnam War meant that our “never-had-it-so-good, baby-boomer” generation – blamed for so many of the failings of today’s world and envied for our easy lives – have actually lived through a back-to-back succession of wars. And I haven’t even mentioned Burma, Biafra, the Congo, Rwanda, the terrible civil wars in the Balkans, Chechnya … and the list goes on. Do we now add Ukraine and the Crimea? Time will tell, as it always does.
As we prepare for the start of four years of events, exhibitions, books, films, television and radio programmes and more, marking the centenary of the First World War, it is a bitter thought that it was to be “the war to end all wars.”
There will be, as there already have been, more arguments about whose fault it was, historians and politicians finding philosophical or jingoistic arguments to support their spurious case. There will be many poignant memories and stories hitherto untold.
We will ask ourselves what we have learned and some politicians and pundits will congratulate themselves on their contribution.
Watching Birdsong, with its threads of shattered love and hopes, acts of unimaginable bravery that went unremarked and unrecorded, reckless military actions rewarded with a few feet of mud and countless mangled bodies, you understand all too well why so many survivors never spoke of their experiences. Only those who had been there knew what it was like – and they didn’t want to talk about it.
Sebastian Faulks writes in the novel (and the same quotation appears in the play: “Some crime against nature is about to be committed. I feel it in my veins. These men and boys are grocers and clerks, gardeners and fathers – fathers of small children. A country cannot bear to lose them.”
This is why films like The Railway Man and plays like Birdsong are so important – because they tell or imagine some of these untold stories and they offer rays of hope.
The great children’s writer Michael Morpurgo once described the process of writing for children, explaining his belief that children can (and should) grasp the realities of life and that they can deal with bad things, but that at the end you must offer them some hope.
He is, he says, an optimist: “Wherever my story takes me, however dark and difficult the theme, there is always some hope and redemption, not because readers like happy endings, but because I am an optimist at heart. I know the sun will rise in the morning, that there is a light at the end of every tunnel.”
It is the essence of our humanity; without hope there is no reason to go on.
* From Wilfrid Owen’s draft preface to his collection of poetry, which he intended to publish in 1919. Owen, the greatest war poet of all, died on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal on 4th November, 1918, a week before the Armistice.