National Identity: Genetics, Ancestry and Rugby

National Identity and patriotism are important to most people. These are the things that make us feel like we belong. Things that give us a sense of being part of a bigger community – part of a team. This emotional response to belonging often comes to the fore in times of conflict when the shared identity serves as a rallying call of support. This is camaraderie – in peace time we see this most obviously in the international sporting arena.

Many people though have a mixed heritage, take Irish Americans and Italian Americans for example. They may have been born in America but they usually still retain a strong identity with the “old country” of their forefathers.  As I write it is Saint Patrick’s day and Irish patriotism is hard to miss in the media, where anyone with the slightest Irish connection seems to be wearing a shamrock.

The same is true of West Indian, Pakistani, and Indian immigrants to the UK, while those  born in the UK are deemed to be British, their ancestry and their cultural heritage are still that of their parents or grandparents countries of origin – something that has enriched the British communities that they have become part of for generations.

I have been investigating my own ancestry lately, in an effort to understand why I feel such a close affinity with my Welsh heritage on my mothers side. It’s not something new to me. In fact I have always been very conscious of the fact that I am part Welsh. I was born in England that’s true, but that doesn’t necessarily make me English – my mixed ancestry suggests otherwise. At best I am a product of Welsh and English genetics in equal measure, though it is more likely that my Welsh genes are the more dominant. My paternal grandfathers ancestry has been easy enough to trace back to the 16th century – all English. On my mother’s side of the family though it’s all Welsh. It’s no coincidence that I was christened “David”, after the Welsh national saint. My mother was born in Chester just across the border from Wales to Welsh parents, her father’s name was Rhys Powell Matthews and his lineage  goes back many generations to South Wales – the surname Matthews originates from Glamorganshire from around the 15th century. The family tree on this side has names such as Gwilym, Olwen and Gwladys (my mothers name) in abundance. And of course many of my ancestors were coal miners – you can’t get more Welsh than that!

 

Wearing my Welsh colours

Wearing my Welsh colours

On a sporting level this identity ‘dilemma’ has been with me since I was a young boy when, in the 1970s, encouraged by my mother, I avidly followed the Welsh rugby team during the halcyon days of JPR and JJ Williams, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and the like. I remember watching them on TV and my mother telling me that I had a lot of Welsh blood in me. Then, as I became more involved in sport as a schoolboy I ended up representing England on the athletics track – no-one ever asked me if I wanted to represent Wales, probably because my school was in England! When the time came to go to University there was only one place I headed for – Wales. I was particularly drawn to South Wales and spent a fabulous three years in Swansea. I recently learned that my great great grandfather was born in Swansea. While at university I did represent Wales at sport – my ancestry made that possible, and I had no hesitation choosing to compete for Wales. As fate would have it I met and married a Cardiff girl, who is passionate about her Welsh ancestry: as a result our children are probably about 70 per cent Welsh and don’t share my identity crisis! Our numerous trips to the valleys to visit friends and family has served to foster an even closer affinity with Wales.  Wales is a wonderful country, with a rich and assured collective national identity and, romantic though it sounds, it is a place where the people are warm and welcoming. It is also country that punches well above its weight on the rugby field – rugby is a way of life for most Welsh people. And anyone who knows me, knows that I am passionate about the game – perhaps that is also genetic?

This past weekend I have felt my ‘Welshness’ more keenly than I have done for a long time. I even learned to sing the Welsh national anthem in Welsh (albeit with the aid of some phonetics!) and belted it out with about sixty thousand other Welsh men and women a the Millennium stadium before the rugby match with Ireland. The atmosphere had a lot to do with it, but those spine tingling moments may also have been due to the genes asserting themselves on “home soil” – if I wasn’t at least partly Welsh I doubt that I would have felt the way I did while singing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (Land of My Fathers) at the top of my voice and proudly wearing my red shirt! Whenever I visit Wales it  always feels like I am coming home. That has got to mean something.

The Welsh National anthem sung by a capacity crowd at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

For anyone outside of the UK this may all seem a bit strange, after all Wales and England are part of the United Kingdom. Wales is a principality and not a fully self-governing country in its own right. But that does not stop a fierce sense of Welsh national identity, built on centuries of history. We are a strange lot on this island, as the member countries of the UK we will, at times of adversity still collectively identify ourselves as being British, but at the same time, between ourselves, maintain our English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish identity.

There is more history and more politics to do with the make up of the UK than I have space to write here, and that’s not really the point of today’s blog. What I really want to know is: am I Welsh or English? To be honest I don’t really know. I won’t ever play international sport again, so it doesn’t matter from that point of view, but if I did, all the rules say that I could choose whether to represent England or Wales. If you had to have a Welsh passport I imagine I would have dual nationality. So perhaps I can claim that anyway? Perhaps I am Anglo-Welsh. However that  will just not be good enough when it comes to rugby, I can cheer Wales and England on against their respective opponents until they play each other – it is then that I find my national identity conundrum the most confusing. So for now I will continue to support both teams, and decide on the day who I support when they play each other – I know that’s a bit of a cop-out but it’s the best I can do for now!

Cristes Maesse

I have tried to write several blog articles about Christmas over the last few days, their content has been varied. I started with taking a look at the “commercialisation of Christmas”, but that just felt tired and cliched, and I found myself sounding very judgemental. Then I tried a different tack and started to write about “The meaning of Christmas” – an over used phrase I felt, that just pandered to peoples need to eat and drink to excess during the holidays. Again I ended up sounding judgemental. Finally I tried observational humour, recounting a few anecdotes of human behaviour that I’ve observed during the preparations for Christmas – mostly in the shops – but my humour began to sound, guess what, judgmental.

Time for some self-analysis I thought, after all I cannot let the festive season pass without making at least one post on my blog. So I asked myself this question: “why are you so judgmental about how people behave towards Christmas?’

The answer surprised me. That answer is quite simply because I regard myself as a Christian. I was surprised because I am not a very good Christian, regular church going lapsed a while ago, I don’t pray every day, and I don’t always got to church on the main days in the Christian calendar. A good friend of mine (who is now a vicar) once said to me, going to church makes you no more Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car – I’ve possibly taken that too far and have been part of the “non-churched” for quite some time.

But back to my not so Christian judgemental attitudes. I suppose I had not realised the strength of my own feelings about Christmas, and what it represents. There are many who argue that Christmas is overlaid onto older festivals, and will point to the historical process of how Christmas came to be celebrated in December, and how Yule and Saturnalia were there first. And that’s all interesting. But it’s not theological and it’s not spiritual, it’s just historical and the fact remains that we do have a festival called Christmas. It’s also not a good enough reason to sideline what Christmas celebrates; after all the name itself rather obviously has something to do with celebrating Christ; the title of this article “Cristes Maesse” is the old English meaning “Christ’s Mass”, which later became Christmas.

Secular Christmas Illustration by apenotmonkey.com

Secular Christmas
Illustration by apenotmonkey.com

Consequently the secular use and notion of Christmas (“Cristes Maesse”) sits uncomfortably with me, after all would society at large hijack Ramadan for its own purposes? Would the supermarkets make lengthy, cheesy, questionably distasteful commercials around Diwali? Would there be black Fridays and cyber Mondays geared around Hanukkah? And if the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then how has the Christian church allowed one of their two main celebratory days, the other being the resurrection at Easter, to be so secularised and taken over in this way? What if “Christmas” was a trademark or was copyrighted to ensure that it was only used by the church to refer to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, how different might that be? It is of course naive to think that we could divorce the secular and Christian celebrations of Christmas, so entwined have the traditions become over the years one can hardly see the join. But for Christians, Christmas is more than a holiday, it is a holy day.

As a Christian, and as cliched as it sounds, I really would like to see “Christ” put back into the celebration of Christmas. The fact that Christ, in many ways, has been displaced from how much of society celebrates Christmas is quite bizarre when you consider it in those terms. And that is precisely my point, there are few, if any instances, of secular society hijacking any other religious festivals other than the Christian ones of Christmas and Easter, and divorcing them from their spiritual and theological meanings. So why should Christmas be swallowed up by everything that is not Christian, and therefore not about Christmas? The birth of Jesus was arguably his first miracle, and it is the virgin birth that we celebrate on Christmas day, we give presents to each other to remind ourselves of the gifts the magi gave to Jesus to honour him, we sing carols that celebrate the manner of his birth – “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, come ye o come ye to Bethlehem”, is a call for the Christian faithful to make a spiritual journey in our minds to the time and place of Jesus’ birth, and we feast to mark the joyous significance of Jesus’ arrival. It is a true celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  On December 25th Christians will celebrate that He has arrived

I hope that I have not been too judgemental of the secular, I have no objection to a secular holiday of course, but I hope that I have provided a small reminder that Christmas is supposed to be all about Christ.

Merry Christmas.

Milestones

 

 

milestone

Last month my blog clocked up one thousand hits. I was quite surprised at how pleased I was with reaching that milestone. This got me looking back at all of my posts to see which had been the most read, and I realised that, with the exception of the “cooking trilogy”, every post I have written is related to some milestone or other (I suppose family meals could be milestones too!).  Why is this? – I wondered.

Perhaps it is because I tend to measure my life by those milestones – I know many people who do the same, perhaps we all do to a degree. Each marker in time  is some kind of right of passage to another stage, another chapter, of our constantly unfolding lives. I actually get annoyed with those count downs to milestones, as I see that as wishing one’s life away.The Christmas countdowns that start well before December are one such annoyance, wishing time away just seems plain wrong to me – we have only one life in this world, so why wish for it to pass more quickly? Like most people I’ve experienced times when I have wished time would pass more rapidly and give way to better times, but now those better times are here I don’t want the days and hours to flash by. Father Time though seems to have a wry sense of humour and, as the skilled illusionist that he is, gives the appearance of life passing slowly when things are  tough, but speeding it up when life is good.

Looking back at my blog posts, which only started in June 2014, the milestones are a combination of personal and societal. The death of my mother and the death of a good friend were two events that put life into sharp relief, a time for evaluation and re-evaluation of my own values, needs and desires. That’s when I began to write again and I have marked days of inspiration, reaching 15,000 words  in my book (20,000 now!), and now one thousand hits on my blog; these are small achievements, yet they mark my passage towards something I’ve always hoped for – some form of literary achievement. I haven’t recorded every milestone of course – that might be a little tedious for anyone who reads my blog  – but also some of these milestones are best kept private, so for example I’ve not recorded the details of my son’s departure for university and my daughter’s theatrical and musical exploits, they are things we talk about as a family, and that’s where the details stay – within our family.

Milestones though can be about more than just  personal achievement or marking the (hopefully) happy progress of our lives. Some milestones are marked on a national, and even global scale, there are some that will always be commemorated. In this blog I have written about the anniversary of D-Day and the observance of Remembrance Sunday – both all the more poignant as 2014 marks the 100th year since the outbreak of the first world war and seventy years since D-Day. Our nation marked those milestones with great respect. But they are still just that – milestones, they mark a point reached and another years distance from the real events, and the milestones become history themselves.

On a more upbeat note our US cousins have just celebrated Thanksgiving, a major annual milestone, and a time for friends and family to meet and give thanks for each other and what they have been blessed with. A positive and reflective milestone. Soon we will celebrate Christmas and then New Year, traditionally times when we look back at the previous year and it’s milestones.

Milestones become history the moment after they are reached. I am reminded of possibly one of the finest lines from a contemporary play, from Alan Bennet’s “The History Boys”, it is spoken by the pupil Rudge, who up to this point has been mostly monosyllabic: “How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another”. It is a line played for wry laughs in the play, but of course it is true. History, is merely a sequence of events that occur in succession – whether that is our personal history or society’s. If we can do our utmost to make sure that “one thing after another” is made up of positive actions,valuable achievements, and enriching behaviours, for ourselves and those around us, then our personal histories we will have a strong influence on our society.

Perhaps there is a moral in here somewhere, and as we approach the end of 2014, for me that moral might be that in 2015 I am going to do “one good fucking thing after another”.

 

Note: Apologies if the expletive causes any offence, however it is a direct quote and loses it’s impact and emphasis if censored.

 

Thanksgiving: what’s the big deal?

 

Thanksgiving

I’ve never understood Thanksgiving. Or to be more accurate, as a “Brit”, even though I’ve visited the USA many times, worked with American colleagues and have many American friends, I have never been able to fathom why the Thanksgiving holiday is such a major event, possibly even eclipsing Christmas in its national importance and observance.

I’ve read about the origins of Thanksgiving, the debate about how it came to be, the influence of the English reformation and the puritans, the possible connections with the Dutch concerning the siege of Leiden (1573), the suggestion that the holiday has its roots with the early pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, fabled tales of feasts between pilgrims and Native American Indians, the Unionist rationale for fixing the date and so on. But nothing really explains why Thanksgiving has the national importance and significance that it does. Other countries have Thanksgiving holidays, but on the whole they are celebrated to a lesser extent than in the USA. Is it a holiday that exists solely to give thanks for the Harvest? In a country as vast as the USA surely harvest time varies depending on where people live and therefore so would their periods of thanksgiving. It is certainly nothing like a traditional harvest festival in Britain which, while a notable Christian celebration (particularly in rural farming communities like mine), is not a national holiday nor as major an event as Thanksgiving – maybe it should be. Harvest has it’s place in Thanksgiving – that much is clear – but it appears to be much more than a glorified harvest festival. And maybe it is because of that, that the religious and secular observance of the holiday is united.

If I’m honest, I am actually a little envious of Thanksgiving. From my observers perspective it seems to be a holiday that has retained a genuine meaning, relevance and significance that transcends belief systems (although what that meaning is founded on is still unclear). Of course it has it’s commercial elements – I’ve been to the Thanksgiving sales – but at its heart Thanksgiving seems to be a holiday of, well, Thanksgiving. I’m not sure it really matters that much what you are giving thanks for, whether it is the harvest, your family, home, community, and friends, maybe it’s giving thanks for your country and your freedoms.

It doesn't really matter what you are giving thanks for

It doesn’t really matter what you are giving thanks for (image courtesy of gallery hip.com)

 

In Great Britain, despite our long and vast history, we actually do not have a day like Thanksgiving, nor for that matter do we have a day like Independence Day; it would be a whole other discussion to look at the make up of the holidays in Great Britain and their origins, but we do not have a day where we celebrate who we are, or a day that we give over to giving thanks. As British citizens I fear that we may be morally poorer for a lack of a Thanksgiving celebration; for we too have much to give thanks for.

So tomorrow, when my usually hectic afternoon of telephone calls and video conferences with my US colleagues will be strangely quiet, I will pause for a moment and make sure that I give thanks for the things that I might otherwise take for granted. I will of course also enjoy the peace and quiet (maybe I should give thanks for that too!).

To all my American friends, colleagues and readers, I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving holiday.

Respectful Remembrance

Today, Sunday November 9th, is Remembrance Sunday – the nearest Sunday to November 11th which is Remembrance or Armistice Day itself. In Great Britain in the weeks leading up to the 11th, the majority of the population will wear a red paper poppy. This is a symbol taken from Flanders Fields – the area during the First World War (WW1) where many bloody battles were fought and where poppies grew. The fields were left unmaintained for years after the war before they became a memorial to those who had lost their lives there. The poppy symbol was derived from a poem “In Flanders Fields” written by a Canadian officer – Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which begins:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row”

A sea of poppies at The Tower of London

A sea of poppies at The Tower of London

 

This year is particularly poignant as it marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1. To mark that anniversary the ceramic artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper have created a major art installation called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London. 888,246 ceramic poppies have progressively filled the Tower’s famous moat since the summer; the final poppy will be “planted” on November 11th. The poppies will then gradually be removed and sent to individuals who have sponsored each one.  Each poppy represents a British military fatality during WW1. The names of many of them have been read out each day.

The poppies have encircled the iconic landmark, creating not only a spectacular display visible from all around the Tower but also a location for personal reflection. The scale of the installation was designed to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary creating a powerful visual commemoration (source: Historic Royal Palaces).

The British public as well as thousands of tourists have gathered to see this remarkable piece of artwork.

The Tower of London moat filled with remembrance poppies

The Tower of London moat filled with remembrance poppies

 

But there have been two public discussions that have, in very different ways, distracted from the intent of this artistic act of remembrance. Last week Jonathan Jones, an arts journalist writing for The Guardian newspaper, disrespectfully (in my view) described the poppies as “fake, trite and inward-looking”, he went on to suggest that the “toothless memorial” is overly nationalistic. I’ll deal with some of those objections shortly. Subsequently Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, in a thinly veiled attempt to hijack an act of remembrance to promote tourism, has appealed for the display to be extended beyond the 11th November to allow more people to see it. Other politicians and the tabloid media have also joined this bandwagon. I’ll add more perspective to that too.

What is wrong with both of these very public comments? The article by Jonathan Jones both misjudged the public mood, as well as belittled it, and in an attempt at artistic snobbery his opinions fell spectacularly flat. Jones seems unable to grasp the idea that a memorial can be gracious and dignified whilst still recounting the horrors of WW1, and of all wars since then. Had he taken the time to visit the exhibition inside The Tower, he would have seen the images of war that have fuelled the creation of this piece of living art, he would have heard the voices of those making the poppies who don’t accept an imperfect “second” because each poppy must be perfect as it honours a single person who lost their life. That is hardly trite. Yes, it is nationalistic, and Jones suggested that is a bad thing. What he does not acknowledge is that thousands of overseas visitors will have seen the memorial, will have known what it represents, and have respectfully honoured what it stands for. The remembrance poppy is a national symbol to remind us to remember  all of those who have died in the British forces in all wars, it is our national way of remembering those who fought and died for our freedoms – to that degree it is proudly nationalistic, and always will be.

Boris Johnson on the other hand could perhaps be seen as having his heart in the right place. He has publicly supported the installation, but has now called on the organisers to extend its life beyond 11th November. This too, in my view,  is disrespectful, it puts the promotion of London ahead of the remembrance that is symbolised by the poppies, and seeks to exploit it for further commercial gain. Not to be outdone other political leaders have also added their voices along with a campaign by the right wing newspaper, The Daily Mail, to extend the lifetime of the installation, and even to make it permanent. Even today the Daily Mail has headlines such as “Army top brass salute Mail campaign to keep the Tower poppies blooming”, and in describing this as a “victory” for their campaign they do a major disservice to the memory of those men and women who fought for real victory. These superficial attempts to make popular political capital in the months before a general election are not befitting of the memory of those who died to preserve our freedoms. I find myself hearing the voice of Winston Churchill at these moments, and I have no doubt that he would deride any attempt to politicise such an emotive memorial. The artists, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper clearly agree and have already voiced their opposition to the request, Piper eloquently explains why:

“People have asked why the poppies couldn’t remain there for the whole five years the war lasted, but I think they would lose their impact. For me, it is like a tide that is reaching a full flow. And then it gradually recedes. It should be transient, as were the lives of the people we are celebrating.”

Journalists, art critics, politicians and the media should put aside their daily agenda’s of political and artistic prejudice, and focus on the real meaning of the poppy and of the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” memorial : To remember the fallen. To honour those who gave their lives for our freedoms and liberty.

We, the people, will always remember them.

The Weeping Willow of poppies at The Tower of London

The Weeping Willow of poppies at The Tower of London

 

The pictures I include in this blog of the memorial at The Tower of London were taken by my friend Marshall Manson, the copyright remains his, please ask permission via me if you wish to use them. Thank you Marshall.

A case of mistaken identity?

I am writing a novel. I’ve tried several times before and have at least three failed attempts to my name – failed in the sense that I gave up and lost interest and motivation. This time it is going to be different – at least that is what I have been telling myself. I am determined that it will be different, as I feel motivated to write and very inspired by my subject matter. I have my daughter Eve to thank for some of that inspiration, over the summer we have been to Stratford-upon-Avon – the birth place of England’s most famous literary son – William Shakespeare. Eve won a place on a course at the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and I needed to be her chaperone. This meant that for a whole week while she was working I had time to myself to write in Stratford-upon-Avon. We stayed in a cottage in a street actually called “Shakespeare Street” – failure to find inspiration and motivation in such a setting was almost impossible.

Shakespeare Street

Shakespeare Street

I walked all over Stratford-upon-Avon, visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, and spent hours listening to the “Shakespeare Aloud” players, who can recite and act many scenes from plays and sonnets on request. I placed my hand on the stone that used to be the marker at the centre of this lovely market town, a stone that Shakespeare surely would have touched and maybe sat upon – it is one of the few relics that we can be almost certain was touched by his hand.

The Shakespeare Aloud Players

The Shakespeare Aloud Players

We watched Henry IV part 2, brilliantly acted at the RSC, using a thrust stage (I was unaware that was what it was called until educated by Eve), which would have been the style used in Shakespeare’s time, bringing the actors into the audience and providing multiple points for dramatic exits and entries. To say I was entirely absorbed by the play, which though I have read I have never seen before, is an understatement.

The "thrust" stage at the RSC

The “thrust” stage at the RSC

On a rising tide of enthusiasm I began to write. A plot, a sub-plot, characters names and personalities forming in my mind, weaving twists and turns into my storyline taking inspiration from what I had seen and heard during my visit. The outline came together quickly, I found using a notebook and a pen was the best way to capture the rapid changes of direction that my brain is wont to do, the written story outline has become punctuated by scribbled diagrams to represent the plot, notes in the margin mark where I had a sudden realisation that I’d missed something or that more embellishment was needed. I was on a roll, I hadn’t written like this in years. I described my ideas to Eve – she is a great encouragement (also a little annoyed that I didn’t finish my last book as she’d enjoyed the first chapters that I had written for her) –  and  thought I had the makings of a good story. Always championing equality Eve has also reminded me of the Bechdel test – a recently developed test to guard against gender bias – does my work contain at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man? I pass. As a result I’m now looking even more critically at what I write, what other “tests” should I apply? It’s no good having  what I think is a great story if it doesn’t have “reader appeal”. My preferred genre is historical fiction – the attraction is that they are always historically accurate – the unwritten rules seem to be that there must be several characters who actually existed during the period and the story must revolve around some real events. Authors of historical fiction tend to explain in the preface that their work is not an accurate account, some events may have occurred in a different order, and the conversations and actions of many of the characters are imagined – but nevertheless the historical context is correct. I have set about researching the techniques and approaches that authors use more thoroughly, looking at what I can “get away with”, mine is a tale that traverses two time periods – so my challenge is making it believable, but there are more examples of this style than I could have imagined – there is certainly no shortage of ideas. I am starting to think that I can write, that I should write, that I am a writer. I have been mistaken for being an “actual” writer twice now since I started this novel. It’s a case of mistaken identity but an identity I’d like to believe of myself. The first occasion was in discussion with the lighting director at the RSC, a thoroughly interesting chap, whose art is to bring the stage alive with different lighting techniques, during our conversation Eve mentioned I was writing a book, which interested him and, although I briefly tried to deny that I was a writer, as the conversation continued I found myself talking as if I was – more to the point he spoke to me as if I was too. The second occasion was surreal to say the least. Eve and I had returned to Stratford-upon-Avon a few weeks after her course so that she could meet  with the course director again as a follow-up. That left me with an afternoon to myself. Having an open ticket to Shakespeare’s Birthplace, I could think of no better location to sit and write further. I installed myself at a wooden table on the lawn outside the cafe, with the house as the backdrop, and ordered a pot of earl grey tea. I then got out my notebook and began to scribble away. I must have been writing for two hours without a break – it was a perfect day for writing, with the sun shining, and some natural dappled shade from the trees, an occasional light breeze preventing the heat from becoming uncomfortable. In the garden next to me I could hear the Shakespeare Aloud players reciting one well-known speech after another – as the audiences came and went I must have heard “Two households, both alike in dignity…” and the rest of the prologue from Romeo and Juliet at least a dozen times! I was just about to lay down my pen to listen more closely to one of my favourite speeches from the Merchant of Venice (Portia’s “The quality of mercy…”), when twenty or so Chinese tourists came into the garden, I thought nothing of it as this is a regular occurrence, and I sat back and tried to listen. It was then that a Chinese gentleman approached me, pointing excitedly at his iPhone, grinning widely and saying “please”. As I am from the tourist city of Cambridge this was not unusual to me, visitors often ask if you would mind taking a picture of them and their friends or family against a famous backdrop – so I went to take the iPhone from him. But no, this is not what he wanted, he wanted his picture taken with me. I tried to explain that I was nobody famous, just visiting here myself, they spoke no English so that explanation was pointless. I even tried in French – the only other language I am semi-fluent in – as someone later pointed out to me, that scene may have  appeared somewhat farcical if ever played back to me – an Englishman telling a group of Chinese in French that he is not famous! That wasn’t the end of it though, having had my picture taken with this gentleman the rest of the group started queuing – a very orderly queue – to do the same. I must have had my picture taken fifteen times either shaking hands with a Chinese gentleman, or with a Chinese lady leaning on my shoulder (their preferred poses, not mine!). All this time the cafe manager looked on from the balcony somewhat bemused, but finding it rather funny. All I can imagine is that they genuinely thought I was a well-known writer, placed there as a resident author for the tourists. I am still intrigued as to exactly who they thought I was and I can’t help but wonder what captions and titles will be on their photographs.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Mistaken identity or not, I do feel more like a writer these days. I write most days. My day job is still the same, but in my head I am moving towards writing as a way of life. It will take some time, maybe I will never manage it professionally, but the more I write, the more I practice, and the more I get mistaken for being a writer, the more I feel that I could be one – no mistake! I wonder if my work will ever be translated into Mandarin…

D-Day Dilemma

description-d-day-quote-jpg

Last week and over the weekend the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches in 1944 were commemorated in many ways. World leaders gathered to pay their respects and some seemed to want to be seen doing so, sadly some even using the occasion for political posturing. The media were everywhere. All a far cry from the horror of a world war and the death and destruction that was required to defeat Nazi Germany.

Old soldiers gathered respectfully, along with families and current day servicemen, in the Normandy towns, villages and on the beaches in remembrance of their fallen comrades and to make sure that, seventy years on, they are not forgotten. The number of veterans able to make this trip – for some an annual event – is ever dwindling. The youngest of those that remain are in their late 80’s and soon that generation will be lost to us, and their personal accounts will remain only in writing and recordings.

One such personal account that I heard on saturday morning put everything into stark contrast. I was stopped in my tracks by a radio interview with a gentleman by the name of Harold Nash on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Answers’. The moment that I heard this man start to speak I knew that he was speaking with experience and authority, even though he is ninety years old. The presenter of the programme was stopped in her tracks too, finding it very difficult to move on to a more mundane item after having heard such wisdom from one of the most profound interviews she is likely ever to do. She said “it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up”. Just as it did for many, like me, who were listening. The radio station was inundated with calls and messages not just in support of Mr Nashs’ views but with respect for his gently spoken words reminding us of the futility of war and killing, the dilemma of how to commemorate, and a reminder that the only justification there can ever be for war is the pursuit of peace.

Harold’s challenge to us all is to think more about how we remember those that fought in such dreadful circumstances. The rattling of sabres – the military shows and parades, the drills with bayonets fixed to rifles, the shooting of rifles and guns in salute – to Harold are inconsistent with what he and his comrades risked their lives for. The celebration of killing other human beings, and the tools used for doing so, is for Harold,  not in keeping with why he fought. Harold fought to bring an end to the war. Harold fought so that future generations would know peace.

As Harold recounted part of his own story the humility of such a brave and honest man shone through. He talked of himself as being a coward during the war – because he was afraid. He talked of being humbled when in occupied territory as he was offered bread by those ordinary people who earlier he would have been bombing and trying to kill. He quoted Albert Schweitzer. He talked of governments being unable to think his way, and that they may not see the inappropriateness of a celebration of killing,  which he understood; but having heard him perhaps governments should think like Harold. He talked of understanding why some seek to remember with pomp and circumstance. And all the time he talked, it was with a voice that told the listener that this man knew right from wrong. This man knew the horrors of war. This man still carried regrets for the lives he had taken. This man did not want to be talked of as a hero.This man did not need the sight of marching soldiers to remember what happened seventy years ago. This man remembered his comrades every day. You sensed that Harold did his duty as he served as an RAF navigator, and fought with good reason – because he fought for peace and a return to normality. Tellingly, when he returned to civilian life it was as a teacher. As I listened to him I couldn’t help but think what a great teacher he must have been. What must it have been like being taught by this emotionally intelligent, caring and insightful human being?

With such wisdom, listening to Harold may lead some to wonder why, in this modern era, we do not heed our elders more. Why do we not learn more from their experiences? Are we so intent on getting everything done so much faster with the latest technology that we have lost the ability to listen, reflect and learn? What if we were to seek advice on some of our bigger life decisions from our elders who have been through it all before? Would we find such counsel helpful or would we be too impatient to listen and reflect? When I recall some of the best advice I have ever had, it has almost always been from someone older than me, someone with more experience, someone with a perspective that I lack. What if our town councils had a council of elders to turn to for advice, insight and perspective? But so many in today’s world are content to go headstrong and headlong into the next crisis, the next drama, the next scandal, the next debacle, and to execute the next ill-conceived strategy. To pause, reflect and consider wisely is the gift of few. It is those few, the Harold’s of our communities, that should be given air time, not sound bite politicians, not fame seekers, not headline seeking investigative journalists. We need more Harolds.

The interview with Mr Nash is still available on the Radio 4 website here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b045xpq2. I urge you to listen to it  while, and if, you can. The interview starts at around 2 minutes into the programme.