Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Remembrance with Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth

And there are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
and so have their children after them.
But these were men of mercy,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their bodies were buried in peace,
and their name lives to all generations.
Sirach 44

This is the quotation below the dedication in memory of her fiancé and brother at the beginning of Vera Brittain's memoir of the the first world war, Testament of Youth.
In 1979 the BBC dramatised the book, with Cheryl Campbell playing Vera Britain. I was 15 years old and so as not to have to wait a week until the next episode I bought the book - which in the end meant I wept once when reading and then again when watching on the tv. Thirty years later the book remains a key influence and Vera Brittain a huge inspiration.
Her daughter, Shirley Williams (now Baroness Williams of Crosby) writes this in her preface to the 1977 edition:
"The books, the poetry, the artifacts of those four and a half years still speak to young men and women who were not even born when the Second World War ended.
Why are we so haunted? I think it is because of the terrible irony of the War; the idealism and high-mindedness that led boys and men in their hundreds of thousands to volunteer to fight and, often, to die; the obscenity of the square miles of mud, barbed wire,
My own picture of the War was gleaned from my mother. Her life, like that of so many of her contempories who were actually in the fighting or dealing with its consequences, was shaped by it and shadowed by it. It was hard for her to laugh unconstrainedly; at the back of her mind, the row upon row of wooden crosses were planted too deeply. Through her I learned how much courage it took to live on in service to the world when all those one loved best were gone: her fiancé first, her best friend, her beloved only brother. The only salvation was work, particularly the work of patching and repairing those who were still alive. After the war, the work went on - writing, campaigning, organising against war. My mother became a life-long pacifist. I still remember her in her seventies, determinedly sitting in a CND demonstration, and being gently removed by the police."

Today is the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War and this post will be made on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour. 20 million died in that war.
How many will die today in wars, in armed conflicts, as a result of small arms fire? Other than remembering are we doing anything about it? Or do we think buying a red poppy as a mark of remembrance excuses us from responsibility for doing something constructive for peace in our world today?

In Geneva I often think of Vera Brittain, many of the doors in in the UN buildings have ornate embossed handles with the initials of the league of nations, an institution I first came across when reading testament of Youth. The failure of that attempt at international cooperation led to the second world war. Our current failures at internationalism also lead to suffering and death for many in so many different parts of the world. Yet it is important to hold on to the value of working both locally and internationally.
To end with, here are two quotes from Brittain herself:

"All that a pacifist can undertake - but it is a very great deal - is to refuse to kill, injure or otherwise cause suffering to another human creature, and untiringly to order his life by the rule of love though others may be captured by hate."

"There is an abiding beauty which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are and who will ask for no reward except to see."