Posted: 12/11/2011 Filed under: First World War, poetry, Vera Brittain
Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.
Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.
Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.
But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.
Listen to an audio version of this poem here.
Posted: 12/11/2011 Filed under: Armistice, First World War, Remembrance, Vera Brittain
To my chagrin, I was so engrossed in what I was doing this morning that I almost forgot to mark the Armistice at 11 o’clock. It was only the Husband knocking on the window to request a cup of tea and me flicking the radio on whilst it brewed which meant I caught the announcement of the upcoming two minutes silence. “It’s eleven!” I whispered as he opened the back door to reach for something on the worktop, and we grimaced sadly at each other before he backed out again and shut the door.
To think that I nearly forgot! And it’s a special Armistice Day, too – 11.11.11, a date believed to have special significance because of the synchronicity of the numbers. As I thought about it, I glanced up at the kitchen clock which, kept fast to stop me being late for things, was showing 11 minutes past 11 – the time that the Armistice was signed in 1918. And thinking of this made me remember who first told me that fact: Vera Brittain
, in her autobiography, A Testament of Youth.
I studied the book for English A level as a ‘mature’ 25 year old and was completely overwhelmed by the sadness of the story Brittain told. The daughter of a businessman, Brittain was studying at Somerville College in Oxford at the outbreak of the First World War and quickly signed up as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) Nurse, serving initially in France and, later, in Malta. Her fiancé, Roland Leighton, a school friend of her brother Edward, died of sniper wounds in 1915 just four months after the couple became engaged. Two other close friends, Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson, died in 1917 – Geoffrey in April and Victor in June. Edward himself was wounded on the Somme in July 1916 but was thought fit enough to return to the battlefields eleven months later. He died under sniper fire in Italy on 15th June 1918.
The death of her brother affected Vera for the rest of her life and though she would eventually marry and have children (her daughter is the British politician Baroness Shirley Williams
), she admitted to having lost her youth and energy and being a sadder, more disillusioned person than she had been before the war. Brittain became a pacifist and peace campaigner, travelling war-damaged Europe as an advocate of the League of Nations (which would later be replaced by the United Nations) and, in the 1960’s, co-founding the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) alongside other notable campaigners. After she died in 1970, Vera’s ashes were taken to Italy and scattered over the grave of her brother Edward, as she had asked for in her will.
|The First Remembrance Day in London on 11 November 1919
In A Testament of Youth
published in 1933, Vera describes the first ever Remembrance Day
in London in November 1919. She talks of bells announcing the beginning of the two minutes silence and of standing in the street as everything and everyone around her came to a halt. She talks of how she spent the time thinking of Roland, Geoffrey, Victor and, most especially, of Edward, and how memories of them flooded her mind, of the days she had spent on leave with them in the self same city. And she talked of how her tears had come as she stood still and remembered.
And ever since I first read about it, it is Vera Brittain I think of every Armistice Day at 11 o’clock. In my mind I see her tiny, vulnerable figure standing alone in the grey November street, shaking with grief, and I mourn with her the loss of her friends and her brother, people who died more than 90 years ago and have no relationship to me whatsoever. I mourn for Vera herself, for the happy young woman she’d been and the future she lost when the call to war was made in the summer of 1914. And it surprises me to find how tearful I am in those two silent minutes, thinking of people who if they had survived the war, would have been very old indeed when I first entered the world.
But that, I guess, is the power of the written word and its ability to say something meaningful to us, even across the divide of time.
Posted: 06/11/2011 Filed under: Uncategorized
This morning I had occasion to nip into the post office on the estate where I grew up. Though it’s not that far from where I now live, only a five minute drive over the hill and a short diversion off a road I use fairly regularly, it’s not the post office that is local to us here. In actual fact, the odd time I need to have a letter weighed before posting it I tend to use the one in the centre of town. However, I was driving back from an unscheduled trip to pick something up, I was in thrown-on, early-morning scruffs with no make-up on, and I didn’t want either to be seen or to take up too much time. And you can park immediately outside my old post office, so I turned off the main road and onto the estate.
What is it about smells and sounds and quality of light that bring back memories so strongly? It was early on a damp, grey, autumn Saturday morning and I was so overwhelmed by a feeling of recollection that I expected to see the ghost of my small self coming out of the paper shop and dawdling back off home, a white paper bag clutched tightly in my hand.
I used to spend a lot of time at those shops. I’d nip in on my way home from school to offload odd snatches of change I’d scavenged or to watch friends as they handed over theirs. On Saturday mornings I’d make the short journey to spend my pocket money there and in school holidays my older brothers would persuade me to run up and fetch them some ‘rocks’, bribing me with a share of the sweets for my trouble. And then there was Mum, who hated shopping at the best of times and who’d frequently send me to fetch things she’d run out of, asking, usually, that they be put ‘on the book’.
We bought practically everything our household needed from that small block of shops, including all the week’s groceries, either from the double-unit Co-op or from the small grocer’s at the opposite end of the row, the plaster pig in their side window hinting at its original incarnation as a butchers. In the Dad years, we’d walk round with him to help carry the shopping bags home, a packet of iced gems as reward for each of us if we’d been good. After he moved out, Mum got the grocer to deliver our shopping, phoning her order through on a Wednesday and carelessly running up a tab for weeks at a time. Until we discovered he’d been doctoring the tally in his favour, that is, after which she took her business elsewhere.
In the middle of the row of shops was a haberdasher cum hardware store run by Ken of the sarcastic wit and – what was her name? – his glamorous, back-combed wife, pleasant enough to secure our custom but suited, we knew, to better things. You could buy any non-food item you can imagine in that shop – wool, hair dye, underwear, kitchen utensils, gloss paint, rat poison. If they didn’t have it in stock, Ken had contacts and could get it for you in a day or so, for a price. I remember standing outside their shop one dark, cold, primary-years tea-time – autumn again – gazing in at the colourful Christmas lights and the tiny, jewel-like bottles of lavender scent in the window. I yearned to get one for my mum for Christmas and was desperate that no-one should snap them up before I could. It seemed like ages before I was able to drag my father in on pay day but the wisdom of hindsight tells me it was probably only a day.
Mr and Mrs whoever-they-were in the paper shop were much sterner than Ken and his wife, their faces permanently disapproving, particularly towards us children. They were never seen together but moved in and out of their workstations like the couple in a weather house, him behind the newspaper counter dispensing tobacco and cigarettes, her caged in the post office, perforating stamps and counting out notes and coins to pensioners. The place seemed huge to me as a child, of course, stuffed to overflowing with pretty, glittery things that I wanted very much. Thinking back to the shop this morning, though, I think they must’ve had to work pretty hard at avoiding each other in such a tiny, confined space.
The glass-fronted sweet counter at right angles to the door was our particular domain. I remember leaving my younger brother at that counter one Saturday morning. I’d already chosen what I wanted to buy – most probably a mixture of loose sweets and stationery for my writing or craft interests – but he, as usual, couldn’t decide. Eager not to miss Swap Shop I left him there, loudly voicing his many options to the glassy-eyed assistant. I returned around lunchtime on an errand for my mother, to find him still there and still talking non-stop at the woman. She looked like she wanted to kill him. I helped him choose quickly and dragged him out of there before she actually could.
Now-a-days a Link cash machine stands in place of the sweet counter, and the displays of pens, glues and notebooks that I spent hours picking through have been replaced by everyday consumables on shelving low enough to look over and spot shoplifters. I was one of only three people in there this morning and the post office clerk had to be summoned from the backroom where, it seemed, he’d been squeezing his spots. Outside in the street two old women in macs waited for the bus to town just as old women had always done, but everything else was lifeless. No children hung around on bikes or waited in clusters for their families to emerge from the Co-op, which is co-operative no longer but goes by the name of ‘Nisa’ instead. The smaller grocers had its electric shutters firmly clamped down and no-one went into nor out of the hardware store, a chemists now but with perfumes in its windows still.
Families don’t get their groceries from up the shops anymore, it seems. They drive in their cars to huge supermarkets on the edges of town, where they’re enticed to buy things they don’t need by generous offers to buy-one-get-one-free. Before she died four years ago even my old mum had moved her custom to Tesco’s. Someone still had to go and fetch the groceries for her, though. She never was a woman who liked to shop.