As the date of my first Women’s Institute talk approached, I realised that it coincided with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It seemed appropriate to begin my talk with a silence, to honour all of those who took part in that momentous day. It suited me well to open with reflection, as it has become my mission to invite people to rescue the stories of their relatives who took part in the Second World War. The silent generation left most of us with a one sentence legend at best: ‘he fought in Italy’; ‘she drove an ambulance’; ‘he was a POW in Malaya’; or similar. The next generation down often don’t even have the one sentence legend and so, if we are to rescue these stories, it has to be done soon before they are lost forever.
The purpose of excavating these stories, bringing them into the light and making them widely available is multi-layered. At the beginning of the WI meeting we all sang Jerusalem. It’s such a part of our cultural heritage that it’s easy to sing it automatically and without really thinking about it. The last verse asks us to build Jerusalem/Heaven here and to never give up trying to achieve that:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
At the time of the Second World War this was an almost literal command, had Blake used ‘gun’ instead of ‘sword’. Delving into the lives of loved ones who took part helps us to convert the abstract idea of sacrifice into solid deeds and values. The realisation of the courage shown humbles us, especially when the person was youthful at the time. Would we have done that? Made that decision? Taken responsibility for other peoples’ lives? Faced with a similarly dire circumstance today, how would we respond?
It is not only us as individuals who can learn from deepening our understanding of that generation. As a nation we are struggling with our sense of identity. We have seen our ugliness unleashed – greed, selfishness, intolerance, ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, and cruelty bursting through our civilised veneer like an angry red pustule. Our response is, not unreasonably, despair and anxiety, but we know that we have a better self. If we have forgotten what it looks like, the Second World War generation can remind us. We carry them within us – in our genes, in our hearts and minds and in our capabilities.
Thanks to the prolonged peace in Europe we do not face a military threat, but we do face a global climate crisis that needs every ounce of commitment, intelligence, co-operation, ingenuity, and leadership that a war draws out of us. I hope the media coverage of 75th anniversaries over the next year will catalyse a transformation into a more positive national identity. Not a regressive restoration to a small-minded and outdated ’empire spirit’ nationalism, but a determination to be our best selves to respond to a challenging future.
Today would be Dad’s 105th birthday and it’s the first birthday of Stranger In My Heart. Happy birthday, dear book!