Saturday 17 November 2012

The Bitter Branches of War

Taking a break from diving: here's an article I wrote for my church newsletter after Remembrance Sunday, when I read out the lyrics of PJ Harvey's "Bitter Branches":

"Bitter branches
spreading out.
There's none more bitter
than the wood.

Into the wide world,
it grows,
twisting under
soldiers' feet,

standing in line
and the damp earth underneath.

Holding up their rifles
holding their young wives
who wave goodbye.

Hold up the clear glass
to look and see
soldiers standing
and the roots twist underneath.

Their young wives with white hands
wave goodbye.

Their arms as bitter branches
spreading into the world.

Wave goodbye,
Wave goodbye."

I asked Dr Barry Thomas if he would like to include this song in the Remembrance Day Service on 11th November, and offered to read it. I thought people might like to know why. Partly, of course, it is that I am a great fan of PJ Harvey’s album, “Let England Shake”. (Whilst I did my best to do justice to it, I would also advise anyone who heard me to borrow the album from a friend or the library and hear the original, as PJ Harvey is as great a musician as a writer, and certainly far better than I am as a reader.) It is one of those rare albums where the songs work as well as poems as they do pieces of music. 

Why this song in particular? Remembrance Day, rightly, is filled with memorials to those who fell in combat. There can be very few settlements in our country, however small, which do not somewhere have a list of the names of the fallen men from the army, navy and air force who died in the first and second world wars. My own place of employment, Newcastle Civic Centre, has a memorial (near the Banqueting Hall) for those who fell in Burma, Korea, and other wars in South East Asia. 

I suppose my choice was partly inspired by a story I once heard, of a headmistress of a girls’ school during the First World War who, on hearing of the casualties of on the battlefield, spoke to her pupils in assembly the next day, saying: “Girls, I have terrible news. Only one in ten of you can hope to marry.” Today, this would mean the loss of one option among many for those young girls’ lives. At the time, it meant that they would never be able to fulfil the role they had been led all their lives to expect that they would fulfil, of being wives and mothers. With many professions closed to women, they faced what could in many cases have been a lifetime of struggle to support themselves.

This might seem as though I’m equating the dismay of those young girls with the horrible suffering of men who died in combat in the First and Second World Wars. That is not my intention. Rather, I suppose that I want to emphasise the fact that war is not something fought by young, heroic men in countries far away. It is a horror that affects all parts of society, from the men who fought and died, to the families left without husbands, brothers, sons and fathers. As PJ Harvey saw it, the bitter branches of war spread out into the world. 

At the top of the stairs in my parents’ house hangs a picture of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather is in his army uniform, about to go abroad to fight in the First World War. His innocent eyes look out towards the camera. 

Unlike many families of the time, my great-grandfather, and later my grandfathers, returned from war. Unlike some of the men they fought with, they returned to have children and support their families as those children grew up. It is a chilling thought that, had the First and Second World Wars not happened, there could well be an entire generation of men and women walking amongst us, who did not exist because the men who could have been their fathers were killed before they had the chance to lead an ordinary life. 

Given the number of wars raging in the world, it would be easy to despair. However, after centuries of conflict, wars in mainland Europe have ceased. That’s not enough on its own, but it is a start. There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that, very slowly, violence between human beings is starting to decline, and we can only hope that this will continue in the years to come. 

Perhaps, if we continue to remember our dead and the suffering war causes, we’ll continue to believe that peace is the only way forward.

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