On a recent visit to Bristol I came across two exhibits that made me think. The first was a poem called “Pessimism is for Lightweights” by Salena Godden writ large outside the Arnolfini Gallery.
Think of those that marched this road before
And those that will march here in years to come
The road in shadow and the road in the sun
The road before us and the road all done
History is watching us and what we will become
There is power and strength in optimism
To have faith and to stay true to you
Because if you can look in the mirror
And have faith and promise you
Will share wonder in living things
Beauty, dreams, books and art
Love your neighbour and be kind
And have an open heart
Then you’re already winning at living
You speak up, you show up and stand tall
It’s silence that is complicit
It’s apathy that hurts us all
Pessimism is for lightweights
There is no straight white line
It’s the bumps and curves and obstacles
That make this time yours and mine
Pessimism is for lightweights
Pessimism is for lightweights
This road is never easy and straight
And living is all about living alive and lively
And love will conquer hate
(reproduced with permission:http://www.salenagodden.co.uk)
The second was an exhibition in Bristol Cathedral that I came across quite by chance tucked away in a corner. It was a selection of poignant photos called “Shot at Dawn” by Chloe Dewe Matthews commissioned by Ruskin College of Art at Oxford University as part of a commemorative art series of WW1. It depicts some of the places where WW1 soldiers, many suffering from shell shock, had been shot for cowardice or desertion. The pictures were a powerful reminder of the utter waste of war and, as the poem says, of the importance of continuing to speak up and working for a more peaceful world.
A big thank you to all the members and supporters who helped out at the Fête as well as setters-up, stall-holders, kitchen staff, musicians, clearers-up and general dogsbodies. And a special thank you to those who responded to our pleas for help and assisted for the first time.
It was a glorious sunny day (probably ordered personally by the Queen for her event), and despite the competition from the royal wedding and later on the football the turnout was good. Gill, who helped out for the first time this year, said that she had some lovely comments from guests at the Fête who were impressed with the whole event: the stalls, the diversity, the friendliness and the music. It all went very well.
In spite of being ill Joanna managed to have an impressive array of plants on offer as usual. An especially big thank you to her for all her hard work while being extremely unwell. Harriet also deserves an extra thank you for standing in for Joanna before and after the Fête sending and receiving items, not forgetting her work on the book stall.
Although several musical turns were unable to attend, Dave Carrier and then the Zero Carbon Band were much appreciated, as was the food, made as usual by Aden. Altogether the Fête took well over £2000 from which expenses need to be deducted. The money, as ever, will be used to further the work of nuclear disarmament and peace both locally and nationally.
Linda Murgatroyd’s Collateral Damage Project (see April Newsletter) has caught the imagination very widely. As she writes: “In November 2018 it will be 100 years since the end of World War One. Sadly, this has not been a ‘war to end all wars’. These days over 90% of people killed in war are civilians. Pain or trauma may last for the rest of their lives and they become refugees or homeless. The military often refer to non-military deaths as ‘collateral damage’ but it is people who are being destroyed.... Each victim of war is a unique precious individual and each textile poppy will be unique too.” See https://www.facebook.com/whitepoppies2018 for further ideas and patterns.
On Thursday 24th May a few of us spent a couple of very enjoyable hours making white poppies to commemorate victims of wars in the century since the end of World War One. Alison Williams hosted us beautifully and conversations ranged wide and deep, with companionable silence in between. In due course the poppies will be added to displays in Morden Heritage Centre and at Wimbledon Library, to be held during July and August. Some will have labels attached to remember particular victims, others will be anonymous — so many die, lost in the tragic storms of violence or the famine, disease or flight to seek sanctuary elsewhere to which warfare so often leads. More poppy making sessions are planned, on June 27th (2–4·30pm at Wimbledon YMCA) on July 11th (11am–3pm at Wimbledon Library) and on August 16th (11am–3pm at Morden Heritage Centre). All are welcome.
We were joined for some of the time by Emily Webb, a PhD student from Liverpool University who is researching memories of living at the time of the Cold War. She is collecting aural histories from people with a wide range of experiences at the time. Our own experiences were very diverse, ranging from little or no awareness of what was going on, or some anxiety but no sense that it was really anything to do with us, to acute concern and much activism. Emily will return to speak with some of us at greater length.
It was a very interesting discussion, enabling us to get to know one another better, as well as setting us thinking about some of the similarities and differences between then and now. The world seems ever more volatile and unpredictable now, and the number of ways in which nuclear war between states could start has multiplied enormously. In addition, the proliferation of radioactive waste has led to increased contamination and risk of terrorism. Public awareness of these issues seems incredibly low — probably because of similar feelings of powerlessness — and politicians don’t want to discuss the issues. Heads in the sand? It will be interesting to hear what conclusions Emily draws in due course, and meanwhile I’m glad she is doing her bit to research this and incidentally to do some consciousness-raising among those she speaks with, simply through the topic of her research.
Most of you will probably already be aware of my illness — thank you for all the good wishes I have received. I shall be undergoing a course of combined chemotherapy and radiotherapy during the summer and my activities will necessarily be curtailed but the rest of the Steering Group is rising nobly to the current circumstances. The Fête of the Earth was a triumphant cooperative effort with possibly more people involved than ever before, and I sincerely hope that some of these new volunteers will be able to spare a bit of time on a regular basis so that we can keep the Friday vigil and monthly Peace Table going over the summer: June 9th and July 7th for your diaries.
In the longer term we may have to re-think the way we run our organisation and this will be a matter of discussion at our Annual General Meeting later in the summer. We don’t always have to do the same things in the same way so all suggestions and new ideas are welcome.
A workshop on a subject of our own choosing was part of our Group’s challenge prize from National CND [see February Newsletter] and we decided that we could all do with a ‘back to basics nuclear know-how’ refresher so that we can explain to people just why nuclear weapons are not simply bigger and better bombs. We asked if CND could send us a convener “with the facts at his fingertips” and were gratified to be offered Professor Dave Webb, who is of course an eminent scientist as well as CND Chair. Please support this venture and give Dave Webb a warm welcome to Wimbledon.
Mansel Road Centre, June 26th 7–9pm.
C.P. Snow (Lord Snow) — scientist, academic and novelist, pundit and politician — had a long and distinguished career. His “Two Cultures” Senate House lecture in Cambridge in 1959 (subsequently published in book form) sparked debate about the gulf between science and the arts which I clearly remember from my schooldays. His novels are still remembered and it was a recent radio dramatisation that kindled my interest in one of the lesser-known volumes: “The New Men”, first published in 1954.
I was astonished in what I read. This was the classic Snow combination of domestic drama (the tangled marriage of the protagonist’s younger brother) and a ringside view of the higher affairs of state. But the subject matter was the development of the first atomic bomb, and it provides a fascinating insight into the opinions and ideas current in the early 1950s among intellectuals in the UK.
The group of scientists that is assembled is a mixture of those looking for career enhancement and others excited by the purely intellectual challenge. As Lewis Eliot, the coolly impersonal narrator, records: “When I first heard the fission bomb discussed, my response... was to hope that it would prove physically impossible to make. But in the middle of events, close to Martin [his brother], Luke and the others, I could no longer keep that up. Imperceptibly my hopes had become the same as theirs, that we should get it, that we should get it first... [and] that Martin would play a part in the success.”
The entry of America into the war speeds up events and Bevill (the elderly politician) cheerfully remarks “Has there ever been a weapon that someone did not want to let off?” It is the scientists who begin to have doubts, torn between the intellectual challenge they have set themselves and a growing doubt that scientific progress is always an instrument for good in the world, and reassuring themselves that their bomb would never be used. “But we ought to take a few sensible steps, just to make sure. I suppose they [the politicians] can be taught to realise what dropping one bomb means?”
Chapter 24 (headed “What Is Important?”) presents the swirl of the ethical, scientific, political and military conflict very succinctly. “Several men of good will felt above all excitement and wonder. In the committees there was a whiff almost of intoxication....” But the scientists themselves were plagued by doubts about the politicians and military (“You can’t expect decency from any collection of people with power in their hands, but surely you can expect a modicum of sense?”)
A passionate meeting of scientists is described where all the ethical arguments and military counter-arguments are rehearsed — majority consensus being that if there had been no other way of stopping Hitler then using the bomb would have been justified. The only argument one could respect was that the bomb might save the lives of troops about to invade Japan (“a soldier must do anything, however atrocious, if by doing so he can save one life under his command”).
But, as we know, all the humanitarian scruples were ignored and Hiroshima happened. In the story, there is a tense confrontation between a coldly rational Lewis and his emotional younger brother Martin. Martin shows him the draft of a protest letter he plans to send to the Times. “If this letter were published it meant the end of his career. I [Lewis] had to get him out of it... even though I agreed with almost all he said.”
Then came the news of the Nagasaki bomb. “Luke said ‘If anyone... dares to try to defend the second [bomb] then I’ll see him to hell before I listen to a single word’.... They all assumed as Martin had done that the plutonium bomb was dropped as an experiment to measure its effectiveness against the other.” And then Luke (“brought up in a naval dock-yard, and kept the simple patriotism of the petty officer”) cries out: “It’s no use belly-aching any more... we’ve [the British] got to make a few of these damnable things ourselves, we’ve got to finish the job.... if we don’t get in on the ground floor there are just two things that can happen to this country — the best is that we can fade out and become a slightly superior Spain, the worst is that we get wiped out.... If we are to get any decency left, then first this country must have a bit of power.”
I find all this fascinating because it must reflect contemporary discussion within C.P. Snow’s own circle. And meanwhile the fiction that the Bomb ended the Second World War has become an almost universal truth amongst politicians and the general public.
[C.P. Snow, “The New Men”, Macmillan 1954/Penguin 1959. ISBN 014 00.1356 3]