by Maddy Paxman
Published 12th June 2014 by Garnet Publishing
by Maddy Paxman
Published 12th June 2014 by Garnet Publishing
I’ve been trying to think of a way to write about this momentous World War I centenary – a hundred years since the beginning of the disastrous battle in which more than a million young men would lose their lives. All the British soldiers involved in the Battle of the Somme had volunteered to join up: they were fighting out of patriotic duty, for king and country – motivated by an abstract ideal of heroism which likened war to a game of sports. To die for one’s country was still seen as a glorious death.
Yet these were ordinary men, wounding and killing other ordinary men over the control of a few miles of muddy ground. Of course they fought at the behest of governments and military leaders, but also backed by a groundswell of public opinion which had roundly rejected any idea of a compromise peace with ‘the Hun’.
A hundred years later, I feel we are still being exhorted to ‘take sides’. Are you with us or against us? is the prevailing sentiment and I have been caught up in it too – in the Brexit vote, in the realignment of political parties, even in my local neighbourhood. At times this year I have felt very angry, despairing, betrayed, fearful.
I am usually more of a fence-sitter, trying to hold onto a sense of (what I see as) the middle ground while the extremes pull in both directions. I’m often astonished by the strength, ferocity and above all certainty of other peoples’ beliefs and opinions. Maybe I’m just woolly and indecisive, but I prefer to think of it as a kind of noble doubt.
If I believe something passionately and you believe the opposite – where do we go from there? Am I ‘right’ and you ‘wrong’, or vice versa? When Nigel Farage (erroneously) stated that the battle for Brexit had been won ‘without a shot being fired’, he was alluding (somewhat threateningly I think) to the violence that such passionate beliefs stir up in people, such that they might be willing to kill and inflict harm on fellow human beings for having a different opinion.
Somehow we have to find a way to work with our differences, not to get ‘entrenched’, stuck in the mud of our own side’s supposed superiority. Otherwise, how far can we really say we’ve come in the past hundred years?
This morning another young family woke up to the sickening knowledge that they have lost a parent. My heart aches for them, for the painful and terrible journey of bereavement which is just beginning and will take them into the years ahead. I feel the same every time I hear that a mother or father of young children has died; it reverberates with my own experience twelve years ago, which while devastatingly sudden and unexpected was in no way as horrific and shocking as this senseless killing.
Jo Cox’s husband and children are beginning the journey in a glare of media and public attention. It will be a comfort to them in many ways to know that she was so loved and valued, that her short life – if not her death – was not ‘in vain.’ But it can also be extremely difficult to locate your own grief in the tsunami of everyone else’s feelings.
Grief is anyway a very complex emotional landscape – it doesn’t fall neatly into ‘stages’ as some psychologists would have us believe, but meanders and weaves and crushes and occasionally uplifts us in unexpected and often shattering ways.
One thing I’m sure of is that this poor family will remain frozen in shock for a long long time – a sudden and unexpected death, especially a brutal or shocking one, is not easily assimilated into the mind and the adrenalin of survival, which kicks in to protect us, also shields us (mercifully) from the full truth of loss for a while. Yet until the reality of a death begins to sink in a little, it is almost impossible to start mourning.
Salt will be rubbed into the wound again and again as the country debates the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of this tragic killing; there will be an inquest, a trial, a constant dredging up and rehashing of the details. The children will forever be children of a murdered mother – this is their story now, and with the resourcefulness and strength of children, and the deep love of those around them, they will make it their own.
I had an article in the Daily Mail today about surviving the first year after bereavement, inspired by BBC2s new comedy/drama “Mum”, about a 59-year-old woman who loses her husband. The programme, being a slightly ‘grotesque’ comedy about an askward subject, considerably overeggs the pudding. But it does get some things exactly right – the way people don’t understand what you need, feel too awkward to ask, and end up sometimes saying or doing something clumsy or unhelpful. It’s great to see a middle-aged woman as the heroine of a drama, and Leslie Manville plays the part superbly: she is the still centre of the mayhem, trying to put a brave face on things, but occasionally letting her true feelings show, especially in poignant conversations with old friend Michael who clearly carries a torch for her.
My family used to own a caravan in Dorset which we visited every summer. It sat on its own in a woodland glade at the back of a mobile home site out in the country. Built in the fifties, it had plenty of character but few modern comforts – you had to haul water in a large barrel, and connect up the two-ring stove to a gas canister outside. It was a peaceful place to stay, even with rain drumming on the tin roof as it often did.
The last time I went there was with Ruairi, the year after Michael died. Soon afterwards we were told that the site was being sold, and the caravan must go. After fifty years sitting on its rusty wheels, moving it was out of the question even if we could have found a site to take it, so it had to be demolished.
The other day I realised that in my head, our caravan is still there. I didn’t actually witness it being broken up, but I haven’t been there in a decade and I know it’s gone. But in my mind I can see as clear as day the white and green painted exterior, the rickety steps, the tall trees all around. As if it’s all still waiting there for me any time I care to turn up.
I think this is what it’s like when someone dies. With your rational mind, you come to accept that they are no longer on this earth. But in your head, they persist as clearly as ever, albeit frozen in time. It does sometimes seem as if they could just walk back into the room and have a conversation with you – although of course if such a thing did happen you’d jump out of your skin. But the fantasy of their continuing presence is very strong.
This is why it is nonsense to talk of ‘moving on’ or ‘putting it behind you’ after bereavement. We don’t just live in the here and now – we are composed of all the memories and experiences and, above all, people who have been part of making us who we are. They’re like the many strands of fibre woven into the thickness of a large rope – they cannot be extracted and discarded as they are integral to the whole. Feeling as though a dead loved one is still around isn’t madness; it isn’t even supernatural or spiritual. It’s just being human.
Every time I have published an article in the past few months in which I talk about my feelings, I get a range of responses. By far the overwhelming majority say that they are glad that I have expressed my own experience of loss, grief etc so clearly and often that it resonates with what they have felt, but have either not had the words to talk about, or in some cases have felt afraid to. They thank me for opening up and discussing topics which are still little talked about in our society – Princess Diana and sobbing X-factor contestants notwithstanding, as a nation we are still very uncomfortable with the realm of difficult feelings.
So far, so good, but there is often – and especially online where people seem to pounce with bitterness and anger on anything that seems ‘personal’ – a contingent who express their discomfort at my writing in terms such as “Get a life!” or “Don’t fill up my newspaper with your emotional ranting.” I do wonder why they bother to read articles with words such as ‘grief’ in the title, and then get angry when it talks about…well, grief. But what is clear to me is that there are still many people who think we should not talk about our feelings publicly – that to do so is to show weakness and self-obsession, is even shameful.
So is it ‘selfish’ to talk about your own feelings? True – there are terrible things happening to people in the world wherever you look. Surely the thing to do is feel compassion for them and just put up with your own pain in private? But what I’m afraid of is that ultimately, if we don’t have compassion for ourselves, if we don’t have respect for the depth and power of feelings, we lessen our ability to empathise and feel compassion for others.
When I write about grief, loss, an unhappy childhood, I am not soliciting attention for myself, nor pity. I am saying ‘Look, this is what it was like for me. How about you?’ I want to start a discussion which I hope will make it easier for everyone to express their feeling experience openly, and for others to be able to witness compassionately and kindly, without needing to rush in and try and ‘fix’ things, or turn their backs in discomfort and disgust. I think this might be what’s called ’emotional intelligence’, but I think of it as a kind of wholeness.
My grandfather, Frederick Hawkins, signed up to the Second London Field Ambulance during World War One because he wanted to do his part, but not to fight. He became a stretcher bearer and served in Northern France between 1916-18, assisting at many of the worst and most bloody battles including the Somme and Ypres.
Stretcher bearers are the unsung heroes of that disastrous war. They saw more death and damage to human flesh than probably anyone else, literally wading through it day after day to collect and carry back the wounded from No Man’s Land. It was heavy physical work, taking sometimes eight bearers to a single stretcher, in testing conditions. With no weapons to protect themselves, they were exposed to constant danger from shelling, lung damage from poison gas (my grandfather had to spend time in a sanatorium after the war), not to mention the soul-destroying work of trying to keep a wounded man alive long enough to get him to where he could receive proper treatment, sometimes carrying him for hours over impossibly rough and treacherous ground only to find that he had died from his wounds.
Other soldiers looked down on the stretcher bearers, calling them cowardly for not fighting. Very few were decorated despite their many acts of bravery, and for a long time their contribution was forgotten, even when that of the nurses, ambulance drivers and other medical personnel began to receive (well-deserved) attention. But without the bearers, the first link in the well-organised ‘chain of evacuation’ of wounded from the battlefield, many fewer men would have survived.
The irony, of course, is that the Field Ambulance’s objective was to restore as many soldiers as possible to fighting fitness, so that they could be sent back into battle. It was an efficient management of resources, as much as a humanitarian service.
Emily Mayhew’s Wounded, a marvellous and immensely readable story of all the medical personnel involved in World War One , brings to life the difficult and dangerous work of the bearers, and their indomitable spirit. She includes this moving poem written by padre Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, composed from all the things a bearer might have said to one of his charges in order to keep up morale as they made the tortuous journey back to safety. The last two lines are very poignant.
To Stretcher Bearers
Easy does it — bit o’ trench ‘ere,
Mind that blinkin’ bit o’ wire,
There’s a shell ‘ole on your left there,
Lift ‘im up a little ‘igher.
Stick it, lad, ye’ll soon be there now,
Want to rest ‘ere for a while?
Let ‘im dahn then — gently — gently,
There ye are, lad. That’s the style.
Want a drink, mate? ‘Ere’s my bottle,
Lift ‘is ‘ead up for ‘im, Jack,
Put my tunic underneath ‘im,
‘Ow’s that, chummy? That’s the tack!
Guess we’d better make a start now,
Ready for another spell?
Best be goin’, we won’t ‘urt ye,
But ‘e might just start to shell.
Are ye right, mate? Off we goes then.
That’s well over on the right,
Gawd Almighty, that’s a near ‘un!
‘Old your end up good and tight,
Never mind, lad, you’re for Blighty,
Mind this rotten bit o’ board.
We’ll soon ‘ave ye tucked in bed, lad,
‘Opes ye gets to my old ward.
No more war for you, my ‘earty,
This’ll get ye well away,
Twelve good months in dear old Blighty,
Twelve good months if you’re a day,
M.O.’s got a bit o’ something
What’ll stop that blarsted pain.
‘Ere’s a rotten bit o’ ground, mate,
Lift up ‘igher — up again,
Wish ‘e’d stop ‘is blarsted shellin’
Makes it rotten for the lad.
When a feller’s been and got it,
It affec’s ‘im twice as bad.
‘Ow’s it goin’ now then, sonny?
‘Ere’s that narrow bit o’ trench,
Careful, mate, there’s some dead Jerries,
Lawd Almighty, what a stench!
‘Ere we are now, stretcher-case, boys,
Bring him aht a cup o’ tea!
Inasmuch as ye have done it
Ye have done it unto Me.