Christmas Greetings 2016 – making the best of a bad year…

christmas

Rushing headlong into what, this Christmas?

Well what a year it has been. This Christmas card seems quite apt, as the world seems to be rushing headlong into disaster, for everyone, not just the turkeys. Politically, I have considered 2016 heartbreaking – but then, it seems, I am one of those ‘bad losers’ who voted to stay in the EU and can’t accept a result that has promoted hate and division and encouraged, in the US, the election of a man who has done little but espouse policies that are against many of the principles I hold dear. But then I am part of some kind of soppy liberal gang who haven’t listened to the ‘voice of the people’. I am part of the problem. And there was me thinking I just wanted to be part of a world that looked at humanity first and nationalism, hatred and greed second. Silly me.

This is, however, supposed to be a Christmas message of love and hope, and it is certainly not a time to give up on one’s wishes for a peaceful world, where we are all, genuinely, born equal. Whatever faith you follow (and even if you have no religious belief, you probably have some overarching view, or sense of your place in the world) this is a time of year when we should extend a warm hand to everyone we meet. Hypocrite you shout!! (well perhaps a few people I know will shout) ‘what about Nigel Farage? Donald Trump?’ My answers to that would be 1) I am unlikely ever to meet them , mercifully 2) you are right, I’m a hypocrite, I would no more shake their hand than rub my own in horse poo and then eat a mince pie with it. It is a prejudice I can live with.

So I am spending the next few days with family I love, watching The Muppet Christmas Carol, opening pressies and eating too much. The time will fly by and I will desperately try to hold on to the warm glow for as long as I can. We have too few reasons to celebrate  – let this be a time when we really appreciate all we have got, whilst thinking, in quiet moments, of those with so much less than us.

Despite the seismic political shocks that have hit the world in 2016, the loss of cultural icons and people we considered immortal, and our rather unrealistic expectations that as soon as we enter the first minute of 2017 things will improve, I want to take a moment to thank you all for being here through the tough times. One thing 2016 did illustrate to me is how lucky I am to know so many people with the same hopes and ambitions for the world we live in, and our own small corners of it. Thank you all for sharing it with me. For a moment, I genuinely wish everybody a ‘Happy Christmas’ and a healthy new year.

But Farage and Trump et al? A plague (of gastroenteritis perhaps?) on all your houses. In the new year the gloves  are off…

 

 

Posted in Christmas, love the universe and everything, New Year, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Writing | 2 Comments

Poetry for Christmas #4 – Christmas Sparrow by Billy Collins

Christmas sparrowI don’t mind if you have not read my Christmas poetry posts. I would rather you had, of course, as it keeps the stats looking healthy, and I honestly think you might have missed the opportunity to escape for a moment. Poetry offers an alternative vision to a consumer society seemingly possessed by some December demon requiring the emptying of bank accounts and the bringing on of breakdowns. So many seem to be going down with one ‘lurgy’ or another, forced as we are into crowds of the germ-ridden desperate to get the last of one toy or the first of some new gadget…

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

So I persist in forcing these moments of respite into your inbox, or onto your social media streams and just hope that perhaps this is THE moment you get a quiet time to sit and reflect on the shortness of the days, the sentiment of the season and the world outside the scramble of the queues and the swiping of the bank cards. Today’s poem (#4) is by one of my favourite contemporary poets – American, Billy Collins –  who has featured on this blog before. His writing seems so natural and effortless, and although he himself apparently dislikes the word ‘accessible’ he is for me one of the poets I would recommend to those who call themselves confirmed poetry-haters, in an effort to convince them that they simply haven’t found the right poet for them.

This poem is called Christmas Sparrow and I think I love it most because it reminds me of a Ladybird book I read to my children when they were small, called The Christmas Robin. It is that interaction of the animal and the human that affects us as little else can – a genuinely natural response to counteract all the unnatural goings-on of the festive season. The line ‘I could feel its wild thrumming/against my palms…’ as a contrast to the stark artificiality of the  ‘decorated tree’ where the  sparrow is ‘breathing there/ among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn…’ creates a vivid image of a terrified little bird, caught among the branches of something that should be its natural habitat. Anyway, I love it, and hope you enjoy it too..

Christmas Sparrow

The first thing I heard this morning
was a soft, insistent rustle,
the rapid flapping of wings
against glass as it turned out,

a small bird rioting
in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

A noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft clench of teeth.

Up on a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a small towel and carried it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, it burst
from my uncupped hands into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
and disappearing over a tall row of hemlocks.

Still, for the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms whenever I thought
about the hours the bird must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie here tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

Billy Collins

Do let me know what you think, and share here any of your own festive favourites.

 

Posted in Christmas, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Poetry for Christmas #3 – Ogden Nash -The boy who laughed at Santa Claus…

Father ChristmasMy illustrations for this, the third in my series of ‘Poetry for Christmas’ posts (see the previous two posts for #1 and #2) are deliberately used to pose a question that confuses many of us. Is it Santa Claus, closer in name to the model for the great man, St Nicholas, or Father Christmas?  Does the name affect the image, or are they all inter-changeable? I have been told that Father Christmas wears a long red robe belted in the middle, rather than the jacket and trousers favoured by coca cola, and indeed Raymond Briggs. But then of course we go back to the ‘did he wear red, or should he be in green?’. We in Britain associate him with red apparel, and in the end, does it really matter? One day, he might decide on an anorak and jeans, after all, he is real, isn’t he…?

Jabez Dawes, in this fabulous cautionary tale by Ogden Nash is keen to spoil the magic andSanta Claus poke fun at the great man, and even suggest that he may not exist! Quite rightly, he get his come-uppance and Santa gets his revenge. It clearly isn’t all about the festive season – Jabez is a beastly child, even before the obvious trauma of losing his parents, but for some reason, all is always forgiven or excused until he messes with Santa…

Ogden Nash was an American poet who, with his light verse, has left some witty and memorable lines to posterity. To find out more, take a look at the poets.org page, or find a book of comic verse and you are sure to find at least one of  his gems.

The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus
by Ogden Nash

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn’t anybody’s joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.
In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies’ reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn’t any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying ‘Boo’ at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
‘There isn’t any Santa Claus!’

Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
‘Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn’t any Santa Claus!’
Slunk like a weasel of a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
‘There isn’t any, no there’s not!’

The children wept all Christmas eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez’ ribald mocking.
He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp-a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of ‘Don’t,’ and ‘Pretty Please.’
He howled, ‘I don’t know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!’
‘Jabez’ replied the angry saint,
‘It isn’t I, it’s you that ain’t.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn’t any Jabez Dawes!’

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,
‘Oh, yes there is, and I am him!
Your magic don’t scare me, it doesn’t’
And suddenly he found he wasn’t!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

father-c1Take heed all ye who scoff. or perhaps you feel the boy hard done by? I know for many the ‘joys’ of Christmas are a myth, and I accept there is far too much pressure on us to be happy on this one day a year, above all others. But I do think that sometimes the only way to get through this time of year is to believe that if we hold on tight, the days will get lighter, both in reality and metaphorically. And for me, the magic of the Christmas saint is one I cling to…

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Poetry for Christmas #2 – e.e. cummings – little tree

christmas treeWe have just spent a happy  weekend decorating the house for the festive season, so it seemed appropriate that the second in my ‘Poetry for Christmas‘ series is the lovely ‘little tree‘ by the innovative poet e.e. cummings, first published in 1920. Written in a child’s voice, it is a tender poem, expressing the love of children for everything relating to the festive season. The poet seeks to reassure the tree that although it has lost its forest companions, it will still be surrounded by love and warmth, and will be decorated when that magical box, coming out of the loft for just a short period each year, is opened. ‘every finger shall have its ring/and there won’t be a single place dark and unhappy’. Isn’t that an expression of love and hope for all of humanity? I would like to think so.

little tree by e.e.cummings

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

e e cummings

e e cummings

What do you think? I think there is a touch of sentimentality about it in the last two verses, but the simplicity of the language Cummings (should it be a capital? I am never sure…) uses gives it a sense of reality to compensate. The voice is authentically childlike in its expression of the magic and beauty the tree represents.

As always, I would love to know your favourite poems, in this case the seasonal ones that stay with you, perhaps all year round…

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Poetry for Christmas #1 Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare

mistletoe2016 has flown by. It has been a strange, and horrible, twelve months in many ways and I feel barely ready for winter. However, the Advent calendar is up, and nine doors are opened already, so in order to make sure December does not fly past in a haze I have determined to do something Christmassy every day. I can’t control what is going on in a world which seems ever more determined to implode, consumed by hate and denying our humanity, and I am well aware that there is an unhappy side to the festive period based on a different kind of consumption. But there is magic too, and poetry can express some of that feeling of love, anticipation, joy and sparkle that is the best of the season.

So I thought I would share some of my Christmas favourites on my blog. I love talking and writing about poetry and I hope , even if you don’t consider yourself a poetry lover, you can find some lines that resonate with you.

So the first poem is Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956).

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

I suppose one could think this poem a little sinister – the author has no idea who has kissed him, and there is no confirmation that the ghostly kiss is welcomed. de la Mare is well-known for his ghost stories, some of them horror-filled.

Walter-de la Mare

Walter de la Mare

However, loneliness is expressed; the poet is on his own, the party-goers have left and he is under the mistletoe in that misty place between sleep and wakefulness, nodding off as the candle burns low. The colour of the mistletoe is still fresh, however, and it has that fairy quality that suggests the seasonal magic is at work. Walter de la Mare expressed his view that there are two types of imagination; one childlike and visionary, and the other (present when the childlike quality is lost) more intellectual. At Christmas I feel I return to childhood, with perhaps unrealistic hopes for the perfect holiday.

So I am with the magic, and the romance and the gentle, sleepy love that this poem expresses. What do you think? What are your favourite Christmas poems?

Posted in Christmas, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Walter de la Mare, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

5 ways to make the most of precious writing time…

Time Flies2016 has been one of those years that has seemed to offer very little  in the way of peace of mind, space for contemplation or periods of calm. The horrors of the world, along with political upheavals, have absorbed our attention and created an environment many of us feel uncomfortable with. I have certainly found it hard to concentrate on my writing, which not only helps us pay the bills but would normally keep me just on the right side of sanity. Even afternoons in a local coffee shop didn’t help me focus, as they did when I wrote Shell Shocked Britain.

However, I have recently been lucky enough to spend a week away, staying with friends in Liechtenstein. It was great to see them, but it wasn’t exactly a holiday. I was going to write, and if I didn’t, not only would it have been a waste of the £100 it cost me to get there (about the same as the travel costs for a weekend in London, from here in the SW…) but I would, in all probability, miss the deadline for my next book – Death, Disease & Dissection (to be published by Pen and Sword books in October 2017).

How often does anyone get the luxury of five free days to concentrate on their writing? Or on anything that means a lot, but which gets put to one side as day to day concerns and worries fill our time, and make the weeks fly past in a blur?

So, having had my week away, and finding it really helpful, I thought I would share those things which gave the 14,000 words I wrote the chance to flow:

  1. Have nothing beside you that is not helpful, or necessary – I cannot believe I managed with my laptop, just two reference books and two printed articles. I was constrained by my one, cabin, bag but since returning home I have kept the amount spread about my desk and floor to a minimum. I was nervous about this new approach, as I am a messy writer, flicking through books and articles and referencing websites to the point where the information becomes overwhelming and I lose heart or go off at an unhelpful tangent. Minimalism kept me focused, and the prep time required before I  set off was well spent.
  2. Set yourself a target…and stick to it – I wanted to write 12,500 words in the five clear days I had, alone in the house. That was 2,500 a day. I write non-fiction, so I was rarely able to follow that helpful maxim ‘just write’. I had to have some idea of the facts to include in the chapter I was focusing on, and that made the process more difficult, for me anyway. But I realised early on that what I was lacking was confidence – I knew more than I thought, and had absorbed more from my reading than I realised.  In the end, I exceeded my target and came home with a little more confidence in my memory…
  3. 15129415_1316465248384782_8424600699653398176_oGo for a walk! – Even if you don’t know where you are going. I didn’t, and I can’t speak German so if I had got lost, I may have stayed that way until I could get in touch with  my friends. The town they live in is quiet, with steep hills and wide grassy stretches to tempt you to get a good lungful of the very fresh air. There was a dusting of snow on the highest peaks, so even if I were fit enough I wasn’t going to risk a climb, but a wonderful network of paths and quiet residential streets offered enough exercise to keep the blood flowing and the fingers tapping at the keys. I couldn’t survive on caffeine alone.
  4. Don’t worry about the time – I didn’t. It was November, and the days were short enough, but in the mountains where I was staying the cloud came down occasionally, leaving the house shrouded in mist that never seemed to clear. My friends did not have fixed working hours so I could not be sure when they would return, or whether they would want their dining room table back! I quickly realised that I just had to get on with it, and ignored the clock on my computer, especially as it was still suggesting I was back in the UK.
  5. And on a similar subject – listen to your body – I have known for some time that I am an ‘owl’ rather than a ‘lark’. Getting up an hour earlier every morning to get more writing done simply isn’t a useful option for me, but I can still write on into the wee small hours if left to my own devices. My body might wake to an early alarm but only feels ready to go from about 8.45.  Whilst I was away I could let my body work like this, as I wasn’t under pressure to go to bed at the same time as my husband, and risk waking him at 2am by crawling under the duvet and pushing him back to his own side. I let everyone go to bed and wrote on. Bliss.

I know I was lucky to get this time away. I can’t afford an Arvon or other formal writing retreat, and I had to accept that time and funds did not allow me another week away in the Lake District. I was nervous about the journey, but I can’t believe how easy it was,  the Swiss bus and rail system being so much more efficient than the British experience.  I have also got the lovely Cornelia Marock and her family to thank for having me to stay, and looking after me so well. My only disappointment was how expensive the chocolate now is, owing largely to the way the pound has plummeted against the Euro, and the Swiss Franc in recent months.

Of course, I have tried to bring as many of these habits home with me as possible, although other work and family commitments impose their presence. The walk is happening, but I still find it hard to carry on after Peter, and the house, are asleep. I have reached the word count for the book and now have the editing to do, which is another challenge entirely, but one I now feel better able to face.

So if you can take some time out, do. If you can’t, then I heartily recommend adopting a more managed routine, and a little more time to write might just appear somewhere in our crowded days.

 

Posted in Books, Death, Disease and Dissection, Reading, walking, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Testament of Youth, Testament to our times? Vera Brittain and a classic of the Great War.

tofyFor my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I read Testament of Youth, and Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, both of which I found deeply affecting. As we approach the commemoration of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you my own thoughts on a classic work of the Great War, and those of Pamela Davenport, who reviews Testament and expresses the value of it as a work supporting her research into the changing role of women during and after the war.

First of all, I must say that if you want to find out more about the background to Brittain’s work, you cannot do better than read the work of Mark Bostridge, who has written widely and well on the subject and who has provided commentary on her relationships, letters and life that, read alongside Testament of Youth, offer the context within which it makes sense.

Vera Brittain

Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain intrigued me long before I read the book as research. As a teenager, I watched the 1970s television adaptation, starring Cheryl Campbell as Vera, along with my parents. Both were born in the 1920s, to working class families who had endured that four years of war and suffered as a consequence. My grandfather was gassed, seriously physically injured and suffered from undiagnosed ‘shell shock’ that remained with him for the rest of his life, triggering nightmares and terror at the approach of thunderstorms. His story was one of those that inspired my own book, but it was a world away from the sheltered life Vera experienced as a child of a middle-class family, blessed with opportunities for a university education denied most women of her time. However, Cheryl Campbell’s exquisite performance drew us all in, and despite the more recent film, it is Ms Campbell rather than Alicia Vikander who is Vera for me.

Pamela goes into more detail about the story itself, below, but I wanted to mention Testament of Youth more as an evocation of a time, than as a reading experience. The descriptions of a world lost forever in the mud of the trenches are terrific, and Vera makes a statement that is one of the foundations stones of Shell Shocked Britain – that the civilian population were traumatised too, and that the impact filtered down through the generations, affecting us even now:

‘I underestimated the effect upon the civilian population (and on parents) of year upon year of diminishing hope, diminishing food, diminishing heat, of waiting and waiting for news which was nearly always bad when it came.’

The waiting at home, though more comfortable in many senses, chimes in a melancholy way with the traumatising silences between the barrages of shells in the trenches that affected so many men. Those anxious waits, at home and abroad.

Unable to write the novel she planned, Vera turned to autobiography instead and gave us a classic work that ranks alongside the best prose of the war, because, I think, she was a poet too. I refer to her poem The Superfluous Woman in my book, not because I think it is searing in its brutality like Owen, for example, but because it spoke for many middle class women (and this was the group disproportionately affected) who expected to marry those thousands of junior officers who were, in relative terms, more likely to be killed, as her lover and brother were, than the non-commissioned men serving under them.

The Superfluous Woman

Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Recalling words
Whose echoes long have died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.

But who will look for my coming?

Long busy days where many meet and part;
Crowded aside
Remembered hours of hope;
And city streets
Grown dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.

But who will seek me at nightfall?

Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.

But who will give me my children?

Vera Brittain expected to remain a spinster after her lover, Roland Leighton, was killed in action, by a sniper. But ten years later she did remarry, and her daughter, Baroness (Shirley) Williams, has always written movingly that although her father loved her mother deeply, he always, as Pamela quotes, saw himself in competition with the ghost of Leighton. The poem above, seems to indicate that he was not wrong.

Testament of Youth is a wonderful autobiography, and a must read for researchers of the period. Desperately sad, it remains the bench mark for description of the death of the golden age that the Edwardian era so frequently represents in our imaginations. At a time, in the 21st century, when the world feels a dangerous place once more Brittain’s words should remind us that conflicts around the globe affect us all in a myriad different ways, never for the better. I think it should remind us that the legacy of Syria, for example, will continue long after the guns are silenced and that we need to support those directly affected with compassion. During discussions about refugees, and about Brexit, with my 87 year old mother I found that far from fitting the demographic profile suggesting a split between older voters (seeking a return to who knows what?) and young she pointed out the similarities between the migrant crisis and her experience of being evacuated. And for her there was only danger in leaving Europe. The financial position aside, she felt we had more in common with our European neighbours, and more to lose by damaging the Union.

————————————————————————

A fascinating book about coming of age during a time when the world is in turmoil, a book which resonates with emotions. – review by  Pamela Davenport

vbThe First World War can be seen as a watershed in society, marking the great division between the 20th century and the pre-war world of Victorian and Edwardian society. The traditional view of women as defined by their relationship to their men, wife, mother, daughter or sister, had difficulty withstanding the effects of war. Mobilisation left many women for the first time in an independent position and many took advantage of their “freedom” by joining the war effort.  There are many letters diaries and memories that provide some insight into life during 1914-1918 turbulent years, but for me it is one of the first accounts of the Great War written from a woman’s point of view, which has been the most influential. Vera Brittain got the idea to write Testament of Youth, in 1916. Writing to her brother Edward that, “if the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book, the story of us four…” the book clearly shows a young woman coming of age during a time when the world was in total turmoil.

Born in 1893 in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire into a middle class family, Vera was expected to conform to society’s expectations of women’s role in society. This was during a time when middle class women were seen as a family’s possession, to prepare for marriage, to raise children and run a household. Not much had changed since medieval times! It was not considered suitable that a woman from Vera’s background would be in paid employment or god forbid, leave home to study at a University!  Home life was oppressive for Vera and her independent spirit was apparent, “The disadvantages of being a woman have eaten like iron into my soul”.  Vera was quickly realising that being a woman was a barrier to her being recognised as an individual and independent person with the right to have further education and a career. She was deeply envious of her younger brother Edward, who could leave home without getting married.

But times were changing and in 1913, after a series of lucky chances, Vera was accepted to study at Somerville College Oxford. Initially her father had rejected the idea, but so determined was Vera to study that he finally relented and gave her permission to leave home. By this time Vera had met and fallen in love with Roland Leighton, Edward’s school friend. All three of them were going to Oxford, and the future looked bright. But the dark clouds of war and destruction were gathering. On August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. It was a decision that is seen as the start of World War One, and Vera would be on the move again.  At the end of her first year at Somerville, she decided that her duty lay in serving her country and like Edward and Roland , she left Oxford going bravely into battle. As she said later, she was “carried away by the wartime emotion and deceived by the shinning figure of patriotism”.  Vera became a nursing auxiliary and spent the remainder of the war years nursing in London, Malta and France.

Testament of Youth became a main resource when I was writing about Women’s roles changing due to WW1. Vera’s memoir highlights the cataclysmic effect of war, not only for Vera but for men and women from her generation. This testimony of a VAD serving with the British army overseas, is an eloquent and moving expression of the suffering and bereavement inflicted by war. But Vera still observed that life was different for women, “The war was a phase of life which women’s experience did differ vastly from men’s and I make a puerile claim to equality of suffering and service when I maintain that any picture of the war years is incomplete which omits those aspects that mainly concern women…The women is still silent who by presenting the war in its true perspective in her own life, will illuminate its meaning afresh for its own generation“.

On reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth the reader is gradually drawn into Vera’s world of destruction and suffering. The narrative plays on emotions, the disbelief as one by one, those closest to Vera are lost in battle, her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward and their friends Geoffrey and Victor. It is a book that portrays the world through Vera’s eyes as she stands at the heart of the upheaval of pre and post-WW 1. Vera was a writer of great descriptive powers, both of place and emotions, the cold and damp, the sickening horrors of Boulogne, the field hospital at Etaples. Her writing resonates with emotions and thoughts of the “shattered, dying boys”, she nurses, her inability to readjust to the brightly lit alien post war world.

In 1919 Vera returned to Somerville, where she felt other students didn’t appreciate the war effort, to study Modern History in an attempt to understand the origins of the conflict which had claimed the lives of Edward, Roland and two close friends. When she visits Edward’s grave on the Asiago Plateau there is a sense of overwhelming shared grief.  It was at Somerville that Vera suffered from a “nervous breakdown”, which is now recognised as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

By the time the book was published, 15 years after the end of the war, Vera had rejected anything that identified war with “grey crosses and supreme sacrifices and red poppies blowing against a serene blue sky”.  The book is Vera’s passionate plea for peace, she clearly throws light onto the agony of war to the individual and “its destructiveness to the human race”.  Testament of Youth conveys the very essence of Vera, a feminist, writer, pacifist, and the voice of the lost generation of World War 1.

Vera was a fascinating woman who achieved so much in her life, she published over 29 books and many articles. She worked tirelessly for the League of Nations and working for peace during the Second World War as a member of the Peace Pledge Union. Her work showed that she was a woman who acted on her principles as well as talking about them.

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain as an older woman

Although there is hope at the end of the book she is able to escape the pain and devastation of the past as the reader is introduced to her husband to be George “G”, the “ghosts” never left Vera, as G commented, “The hardest rival you can have is a “ghost” because your inclination is to idealise someone who died long ago”.  Vera died on March 29th 1970 and was cremated, according to her wishes her ashes were scattered over her brother’s grave in Italy’s Asiago Plateau.

Testament of Youth is a beautifully written and thought provoking book, about the consequences of war, love, duty, responsibility and the power of the written word. It is a book that has stood the test of time. Tragically the message still resonates in the world today.

References:

http://www.ppu.org.uk/vera/
http://www.ox.ac.uk/world-war-1/people/vera-brittain
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/24/vera-brittain-testament-of-youth
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