Michelle Obama recently commented that America is a country “without hope”. But I question whether, as we turn towards 2017, any of us can truly live without hope. We can’t afford to focus on the pessimistic view if we truly wish for things not to be as cataclysmic as many people fear. The question is, do we really know what we do want the outcomes to be – for ourselves, our families, countries and the world? Without a vision of a positive future we cannot create it.
It is easy to feel anxious, certainly. We sit at a pivotal moment where all kinds of world situations look as if they could go horribly wrong. Trump and Brexit have shaken up the norms to which we have become accustomed. There is the concerning potential that the clock will be turned back on the Cold War, European alliances, American diplomacy, the balance of power, the position of women’s equality. There have been the tragic events in Berlin, Nice, Paris, Syria, Iraq and the Middle East. Mass migration across Europe. It’s been a year of upheaval.
But we can get caught too easily into what Ekhart Tolle describes as our ‘pain body’ – the part of us that is attracted to negativity and pain. It is a part that the media exploits outrageously – always focusing on the negative dramas of any situation that is occurring in the globe, working on our fear. Even charities have to reinforce negative messages in order to encourage us to give more generously. But fear doesn’t help us stay healthy, nor does it help us to be happy – and remaining as happy as possible on a daily basis is surely a reasonable goal for us all as we head into the new year.
Here I am encouraging you to vision what you really would like to happen next year and beyond. What would you like for yourself as an individual in 2017? What would you like for your family, your work, your community? What would you like for the environment, for your country, for the world in general? What might that look like? How might some of the headlines run? What would you be seeing, feeling, hearing?
In my experience in my own life and as a coach I have seen visualisation work over and over again. People’s goals don’t always happen in the precise format that they want nor within the timescale that they hope for – but virtually always when goals are shaped and action taken towards them I have found that many of those goals are achieved. Indeed, David and I were pleased recently when we looked back over the new year jottings and goals we had created together over the last six years and realized that many of them had come to fruition. So I know that at some stage during December 31st we shall be working out what we wish for ourselves, our families and the world in 2017.
When it comes to world goals it can seem as if we can’t influence the outcomes. And yet if we all spend our time in the negative conversations I have experienced in 2016 focusing on the worst outcomes of Trump, Putin, Brexit, Turkey or Syria then we start to make it a reality before it is even happening. This wastes our precious moment of here and now as we are interrupting our peace of mind with speculative thoughts of catastrophe. No entrepreneur would do this, because they understand that optimism – or what I prefer to call rational optimism – is what initiates opportunity. They might check out the risks but nonetheless maintain a positive focus on how these can be overcome.
Could we therefore vision a world where Trump is not the disaster that we fear he may be, where Putin becomes a benevolent force, where Brexit works out well for all those involved, where IS fizzle out, where there is more integration between religion and races across the world, where women are treated as equals? Could new contracts, new leaders and new alliances actually be a good thing for the world? We may not be able to see this as a possibility today but equally none of us knows what the future holds so perhaps some modesty around our clairvoyant abilities is appropriate?
Let’s not feed the negativity and fear that exists in the world. There has been progress – fewer dictatorships, less bloodshed in war. Let’s build on this. We can’t create future success unless we acknowledge the successes we have created so far. We can’t shape a better world if we don’t know what we are trying to shape.
I won’t have time to write another new year message (we have between 10-16 people staying with us every day now between Christmas and new year!) so on that note may I wish you a very happy Christmas and a 2017 that brings what you would like.
I wish for peace and goodwill for all
“When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep… “ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
They say that Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year for any couple. So as we head towards the chaos of presents, parties, over-indulgence and young children’s excitement, I thought I would share some of the lessons I have learnt about love in my 50 years of endeavouring to get it right (and inevitably not succeeding!). I am not sure that anyone gets it ‘right’ of course. We just muddle along in the confusion that is oneself and another person. But some things work better than others, I have found, and I wish I had known them when I was younger. So here goes…
- I have come to see that love is an activity of the mind as much as the emotion because one sparks off the other. We need to keep love in focus, not just assume it will be there forever without conscious thought. You can train your brain to remember why you fell in love with one another in the first place – the first image, the attraction, the conversations and the interest you showed towards the other in those early days. This activates the emotions and memories that reinforce love even through the pressures of the Christmas season when one is woken early by children or under a deadline to put the turkey on the table at a particular time for the in-laws. I have found that one can fix many of the everyday challenges of living with another person if one holds love central. Once we allow it to fade it is much harder to reignite that wish to be together.
- I have just discovered, at my ancient age, Karen Horney’s model that one can become aware of one’s tendency to respond in three different ways to one’s partner – to turn towards them, to turn away from them or to turn against Realizing that I have a conscious choice as to whether I turn towards my partner and listen to their needs, turn away from them when they ask me for something, or turn against them and get angry, has been a really helpful insight. I become alert to what I am doing and make a more helpful choice, especially when I acknowledge that my response may have had nothing to do with them precisely but more to do with me just being in a bad mood about something completely different! It’s a great model to keep in mind.
- I don’t think I knew enough about the nature of love earlier in life, the give and take, joy and pain that is a natural part of being in relationship. Nor the need to express one’s inner being with one’s partner. I met my ex-husband when I was 18 and was very naïve and rather buttoned-up. I knew nothing about love nor, indeed, at that age much about life either! The myths about “happily ever after” did not prepare me for bumping up against another person’s perfectly legitimate but different habits and moods. Maturity makes a difference. Self knowledge enables us to achieve a degree of honesty about our own quirks and expectations of life and love. We can then learn to question whether those expectations are realistic! After all, the Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn movies of my youth gave us the impression that it would be so easy but of course that was just Hollywood. Perfection doesn’t exist.
- There can be some science to it: I have found that understanding personality types is both interesting and helpful to observe the different way each of us responds to a situation. Myers Briggs (http://www.myersbriggs.org), the HBDI (http://www.herrmannsolutions.com) and the Enneagram (https://www.enneagraminstitute.com) all give insights into why one’s partner does things the way they do and can also help one understand the impact of stress on behaviour. I become horribly nit-picky and anxious when I am stressed. Others become sharp, angry or withdrawn. Getting to the bottom of the emotional concern beneath the behaviour can be enlightening.
- The advent of young children inevitably skews the balance of the relationship. I didn’t realize how many men feel sidelined at the birth of a baby. I could have been more sensitive to this. It’s really difficult to keep the couple relationship central, even in the midst of a child’s demands but nonetheless so important. If you value family then value each other because if the two of you don’t hack it the family falls apart and that is sad for everyone. Divorce is a miserable affair. You won’t see as much of your children and are likely to have less money to spend on yourself or them. So keep the romance alive. Make time for the two of you to be adult, to be lovers and stay on each other’s side, as your children will test you on many levels as the years go by.
- I know it’s really hard in today’s 24/7 digital world to put love before career. But in my experience it can often be far easier to find another job and far less easy to find love with someone you can live with. Watch the balance of priorities in the midst of the reality of having to pay the bills. “I’m doing it all for you” has a hollow ring if you aren’t giving enough attention to the relationship. Being at the bottom of a priority list doesn’t feel good. Review your mutual priorities often as you and your partner’s lives change and the children grow up. Working late and focusing on career is ok some of the time but not all of the time. The reality is that work loses its meaning when life at home is unhappy.
- It’s easy to forget that we will change. When I hear people say things like “She isn’t the girl I married” I think to myself, of course she isn’t because you married her twenty years ago and none of us are the same people we were twenty years earlier (just look back at the photos!). Inevitably each of you will change over the years, and the nature of your relationship will change with time. This is totally natural but can take adaptation, particularly if one of you takes a new turn or develops an interest that you personally can’t understand. I know I found it threatening to be with someone as they changed. But it means a lot to have a partner who encourages you when you try something different – as David does now with my poetry.
- I could have been better prepared for the reality of marriage. What Gibran says is true. Love is a long journey and its lessons are tough and challenging. It isn’t for the faint hearted. It is a decision. A decision to commit, to be loyal, a decision to push through the problems and challenges. A decision to keep the positive aspects of the relationship to the foreground of our mind and not to keep harking back over old wounds or allow a spiral of negative dialogue to build up about how the other person is wrong. All divorces, just as all relationships, take two to create the dynamic. Each has to take responsibility for their part in what they contribute to the union. When you feel like judging or blaming the other person ask yourself “but do I do that too sometimes?”. It’s shameful how often I have realized that I have got irritated about something that, when I reflected on it, I have to accept I do too.
- I read John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work a few years ago. He describes ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’ that break relationships – criticism, contempt, defensiveness (ouch, how difficult it is to avoid that one!), and stonewalling, which is where you refuse to talk about an issue the other person has raised. The book is full of good advice taken from well-researched cases. Read it, reflect on it, act upon it and it gives you a chance to keep love alive.
- As we get older the number of people we love grows – children, parents, grandchildren, siblings, friends, nieces, nephews and intimate partner. We have room for all of them in our heart but there can be times when, say, a baby arrives or a parent is needy and we get pulled in different directions. Watch for the real need versus the emotional blackmail and don’t lose sight of what really matters to you in the long-term.
- Learning about cognitive-behavioural psychology has been very useful. Reflecting on how we are all fallible and make mistakes, checking whether expectations of one another are rational and helpful. If you find yourself using should, must, ought-to’s in your thinking – “he should know how I am feeling” (even though he is not a mind-reader and you haven’t shared your emotions with him) or “she ought to have understood how difficult my day has been” (even though she hasn’t been there), then check whether your thinking is helping you connect or just pushing you apart.
- Life changes. It was my ex-husband’s 70th birthday last week and David and I went to his party to celebrate. It’s hard to believe that someone you have known since you were 18 is now turning 70 – scary in fact as it means that I must be heading for that number too soon. And 70 is an age I associate with my parents and their friends, not with myself. But of course I’d better learn to live with it. For me the most poignant aspect of the evening was that I could toast my ex for feeling blessed that we have a good relationship, that when either of us is concerned about our sons or grandchildren we can turn to one other and talk about it. That we have been able to share graduations, weddings, children’s parties and Christmas happily together. It’s a lonely place if you can’t talk about what is best for your children with the person who loves them as much as you do. You may not live together but you can remain loving parents, rejoicing in their successes, supporting them through harsh times. It’s not always easy but it means a great deal to those children when you do manage it. If you are parents you will be parents for life. No-one else cares for your children as much as the two of you do. So it’s worth keeping that relationship on good terms and I know many families who will be celebrating Christmas happily with ex-spouses and their extended families.
I love Christmas but it is often a muddle of family relationships, burnt gravy, spilt red wine on white carpet, noise and chaos. Acceptance, forgiveness and a sense of humour work wonders at releasing you to enjoy whatever happens. There’s no perfect template for living. Nor for love. But some things help, and as it has taken me to reach the age of 66 before I learnt many of them, I thought I would share them with you so that hopefully you don’t have to be the slow learner I have been!
I woke this morning realizing that I am one of the luckiest women in the whole of the history of the world. Born in 1950 I missed the impact of war, though its aftermath shaped my childhood and made me value the peace we experienced in England. Yes, girls were still regarded as less important or intelligent than boys and we were told to become secretaries, teachers and nurses rather than managing directors, pilots or doctors but the social and political changes of the 1960s overturned much of those attitudes and we did, indeed, become more than had been anticipated for us. With the pill, for the first time in history, we gained control over our lives with an ease that no previous generation of women had experienced. We could plan the number of children we felt we could manage financially, enabling us to work alongside motherhood and to become economically independent. Research overturned the concept that women were not as intelligent as men and we achieved excellent results at school and university, providing career opportunities we hadn’t thought possible.
I want my granddaughters to be as free and empowered as we have been. But I have fears that there are forces potentially trying to turn back the clock to a time when women had less power and influence. Trump’s anti-abortion and misogynistic rhetoric puts such attitudes centre stage. In addition, lad culture, internet porn, those who resent and berate feminism such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Erdogan’s reforms, plus integration with radical fundamentalist cultures who believe women to be inferior to men, could reverse the changes I have enjoyed. We have witnessed leaders introducing repressive regimes in Iran, Afghanistan and in countries across the globe. Let’s be watchful that we don’t sleepwalk back in time on these issues…
Throughout many parts of the world today women still do not have the same legal or voting rights as men. Women the world over, eg half the human population, throughout history have been treated as inferior mentally and emotionally. Social behaviours and laws have been developed to control them and, until the 1960s we could not easily limit the number of children we had so women frequently experienced multiple pregnancies and births. Death in childbirth was common and the effort of carrying and raising that number of children was gruelling. This remains the situation today for women in many other parts of the world.
Life changed for those of us born after the Second World War. We began to see that we were just as bright and capable as men and men started to adjust to treat us as such. Our relationships became generally less subservient and in the western world men have taken an almost-equal role in raising the family, cooking and sharing the responsibilities of home life. As a single woman I was able to take a mortgage – a simple right that was denied previous generations unless a man signed the deed for you. I set up a business, borrowed money to invest in that business, travelled the world on my own without hassle.
In my youth it was edgy for a woman to go into a pub or cinema on her own. Today we can go where we choose. Whether single or in a relationship the opportunities to participate in culture, travel, clubs and social life has been easy for me. Now, as an older woman, the opportunities are amazing in comparison with those of previous generations.
Equal pay and equal rights aren’t working perfectly but I think young women can’t imagine how different it was for their mothers and grandmothers, some of whom had worked in the war but then were hurried back to the kitchen. I and my peers have benefited from the NHS and medical advances that would have amazed and potentially saved the lives of our grandmothers and their children. It’s easy to forget how dangerous and damaging back-street abortions were too. Girls put their lives and health at risk and seldom took the decision lightly. Those who carried their babies to full-term were ostracised and had to have them adopted, at great personal cost. Don’t let’s go back there.
We have had a tendency in this country to accept behaviours that are unacceptable, including forced marriage, FGM, bigamy, domestic violence, honour killings and women losing their children post-divorce. We have fought hard to change the lot of women in the UK within a very short time. What the suffragettes started was carried on but it isn’t so long ago that the generation of women born before the Second World War were frequently subjected to the kind of behaviours we see in Mad Men, where men felt entitled both to touch and undermine them. Those men would have found it hard to conceive that their secretaries might one day become their bosses. We can’t tolerate a return to that sense of entitlement that existed then but internet porn and lad culture do indeed threaten to turn back the clock and encourage men to abuse girls, as the research in Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls and Sex demonstrates [Harper Collins].
It’s too easy to lose what one doesn’t appreciate. Think about your daughters, granddaughters, nieces and the future generation of women wherever they may be. We need to protect their dignity and their freedom to contribute to business, the arts, science, politics and more, with their minds and creativity. Our sons and grandsons benefit too where there is a balance of equal respect. The world needs the voices of women in senior positions to counteract Trump-style chauvinist behaviours that could otherwise overwhelm us. Those countries where women work and are in positions of influence do better economically and are civilised places to live. We all need to be alert to any chipping away of women’s position or respect. It’s not a joke. Generations of women and girls have suffered and still do across the globe.
Speak out, write about it and complain should these rights and freedoms be put in jeopardy. Not just for your own family and friends but for the whole of civilisation. 50% of the human population has just as much right and just as much to offer as the other 50%. It may be different but it is every bit as valuable a contribution to humanity. Let’s work together to ensure that male and female voices have equal status in taking the world forward in 2017 and beyond.
I have had an uplifting couple of days visiting Salisbury, an old haunt where I was confirmed and where my sons were at school, and then driving down to Devon through the most beautiful landscapes of autumn. What a stunning country we live in. I do enjoy the changes of the seasons, the sweeps of fields, hills and golden woods. I enjoyed noticing the horses, cows and sheep grazing on the green grass and my journey was an enriching experience. I felt fortunate to inhabit such beauty.
And I have been questioning how it is that I know those things that uplift me but don’t always make sufficient time for them. It’s so easy to get buried in emails and lost surfing the internet. All very interesting but this seldom raises my spirits in the way that, say, standing under a night sky does. When I had a flat in Nice I would sit on my balcony almost every night looking up at the stars but now I live in the countryside, where the sky is clearer and less light-polluted, I hardly ever remember to get my fix of wonder by going out into the garden and looking up. More fool me.
So I have been thinking about what it is that makes one person experience a sense of awe from being in a sunset or a sacred place and another from being in a science lab. Where do you gain your sense of wonder?
For me it’s cathedrals. Put me in a cathedral with a choir singing and I am transported to another realm. I can’t help but experience a sense of wonder. I don’t have to think about it. It just happens. I look at the beauty of the stained glass, carved wood, towering arches and something happens inside me, unbidden. Awe.
I was visiting Salisbury in the hope of finding the gravestone of an ancestor, Thomas Bucknall. He is recorded on our family tree as having been buried in St Edmund’s Church Salisbury in 1783. And so I spent Sunday afternoon wandering around damp graveyards only to discover that St Edmunds is now deconsecrated and has become an Arts Centre. No-one I spoke to seemed to be clear about what had happened to the graves.
And so I moved on to the church of St Thomas, in the centre of Salisbury, to see if anyone there knew where I might find information, as the parishes were amalgamated in 1973 becoming St Thomas and St Edmund’s. What a delight that was – a chapel with medieval wall paintings and, above the Chancel in the main church, a Doom Painting, depicting a Bishop being dragged to hell. But the concept of doom brought my mind back to the US election, to Syria, Brexit, Mosul and the hope that doom would not be coming our way soon.
I have always been drawn to sacred spaces and sacred music. I don’t really know why as my parents weren’t particularly religious. I think it may have been due to my prep school headmaster, John Booker, or Mr B as we called him, at Knighton House in Dorset. The Bookers had created a simple white chapel in the basement of the school and Mr B took our services. I still remember him often, as a warm, wise and spiritual man. His wife, Peggy, led the choir and carol services in the local church in Durweston. For me it was a special time and I continued to enjoy going to church even though my next school, Cranborne Chase, did not push religion down our throats and many of my friends weren’t interested. But we were encouraged to think about what it meant and to me it resonated and has been a part of my life ever since.
David and I are lucky to have Winchester, Chichester and Salisbury cathedrals all within a short distance and can go to services or listen to sacred music. On our travels in Russia and Eastern Europe we visited Orthodox churches with exquisite wall paintings and were given concerts by black-robed Orthodox priests with their sonorous bass voices. Fabulous.
And so on Sunday night, to shelter from the cold and from the potential doom of the US election, I took myself to evensong in Salisbury Cathedral. As I walked down the nave that familiar sense of wonder took me over. I looked up to the ancient stones and thought of the history of the kings and bishops who had walked the flagstones over the centuries. And felt angry again that the government are potentially dropping History of Art from the school curriculum. Whether or not you believe in Christianity these churches and cathedrals and the art within them hold our history. I remember my mother being horrified by a young woman next to her in a jewellery shop who looked at a gold crucifix on a chain and asked, “who’s that little man?” Will generations to come know anything about the stories and beliefs that have shaped our past?
I have noticed that a building takes on the energy of what happens within it. For me a cathedral presents an energy of wisdom, as if the centuries of worship and song have seeped into the stones, encouraging us to be still, to reflect and question what we can learn so as to access the better part of ourselves as we go back out into the world.
The bishop spoke of truth and wisdom in a thinly-veiled attack on the “post-truth” politics of Trump and Clinton. He reminded us of the Magna Carta housed in Salisbury Cathedral, implying that we should take the judiciary seriously. And the choir sang the Nunc Dimitis and Magnificat, their pure young voices echoing around the aisles. Truth, wisdom, forgiveness and love, yes, good values to hold within us whether we believe in Jesus Christ or not.
I left feeling uplifted, reminding myself that it is up to me to seek out these moments. They exist if we look for them – in the night sky, in music, a painting, a sunrise, in the innocence of a child, a cathedral. In this uncertain world we can still find wonder. Each of us will see awe in different places. It’s up to us to make it happen.
How accurate is your memory of the past? Of your family? Of past events? Do you find that siblings, partners or colleagues have contrasting views of an experience you shared? People tend to notice and remember different aspects of a situation or project.
David and I have just been travelling the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest. It was a tour organised by The Daily Telegraph and Emerald Waterways (www.emeraldwaterways.com). The theme was war. We were treated to lectures from BBC foreign correspondents Nick Thorpe, talking about Budapest and the Danube, John Simpson covering the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, and Martin Bell who travelled with us and enlightened us with his experiences of the Croatian Wars. It was a fascinating trip on a luxurious and expertly-run boat and in the company of some delightful, educated and interesting fellow travellers.
I came away with many impressions of post-Communist Eastern Europe and two particular questions kept coming into my mind as we tried to piece together the various narratives we heard from our local guides, the journalists’ lectures and the people we met on the street. First, how do people find the stoicism to survive the terrible personal suffering of war? Something I suspect one can only know by experiencing it and I hope I shall never do so. Second, how do we find the heart of the matter when so many perspectives and personal experiences differ, when memories are often clouded by emotion and filtered by belief? What and where is the truth within these complex events: what is history?
We visited towns and villages in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. In each place we had an individual tour guide and each guide offered a different perspective. This was particularly true in Croatia where the responses to the question of how Croats and Serbs now live together were markedly contradictory. We all had hosted lunches with different families. In our family there were two daughters, their parents and two children. Their experience of the war had been that their house had been 70% ruined by mortar shells and they had escaped to Austria while a Serb family lived in their home for five years. The Serb family had been in touch with them throughout this period and handed them back the key at the end of the war. Now, they told us, Croats and Serbs live happily side by side and go to school together.
Our fellow travellers received strikingly different narratives from the hosts with whom they lunched. They were informed that Croat and Serb children may go to the same school but at different times of the day, so that they don’t mix. Martin Bell confirmed this and reported that even before the war people lived alongside each other because the police made sure there wasn’t trouble. We heard other sad stories of the after-effects of the war where a husband had been killed by chemical gas, young men maimed physically or left with PTSD, some never able to work again. The fact that the family David and I visited seemed to be of an optimistic nature and united as a unit may have made their perspectives of history different from that of others. Each individual we spoke to had experienced distinct events and had inevitably met those events with their own beliefs and points of view.
I was left with a general impression of the miserable legacy of Communism – the hypocrisy of leaders presenting themselves for equality of all people and yet building themselves palaces and pocketing money. The monotonous and grim concrete blocks built in all the five countries we visited that are now crumbling and decrepit. Our guides told us, as we were told in Russia earlier this year, that their parents sometimes harked back to the certainty of those times, even though they were on starvation rations. There had been more-or-less 100% employment and people had the ability to live, albeit at a meagre level. Today nothing is certain and people are frequently living on as little as 400 Euros per month, with rents taking more than half of that income.
Everywhere we went we heard of high unemployment, low wages, derisory pensions, of corruption in high places, of those who were in Communist regimes remaining in some administrative and political roles. And of how the young are moving away to Germany, the US, Ireland, UK because they see no prospect of work in their own countries, depriving those countries of their brightest doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs who could potentially help rebuild these countries economically.
But I question whether the people who have been privy to occupations or dictatorships find it easy to be entrepreneurial? Communism has treated them as automatons, as groups of people and not as individuals. I wondered, from a neuroscience perspective, whether finding the neurons in the brain to identify innovative opportunities may well not come easily to such people with these histories. After all, their parents lived under Communism and their grandparents often under an authoritarian monarchy, neither of which encourage creative individualism. I don’t believe we can make people think in new ways overnight, any more than we can expect people to embrace democracy overnight when they have not had it for centuries, if ever.
Once again I was struck by how different the history of the UK has been to that of mainland Europe, where they have had centuries of invasions, occupations, dictatorships. We were told that when living under an authoritarian regime people find ways to get around the rules – the black market, whispered deals in corridors to avoid tax, make things happen, or find goods that people want. They call it ‘the loop’. We have not been occupied and have had centuries where our institutions have developed in such a way that most of us abide by what we recognise to be adequately fair rules. Having visited East Europe, Russia and South America over the last couple of years, I am left with a sense that we just don’t know how lucky we are in the UK, that our poverty bears little relation to the kinds of hardship people in these countries are experiencing.
I am no expert and don’t pretend to understand the histories of the countries we visited. But I do think we need to be careful when we are constructing a historical narrative, whether it is about a war, a country, a family or an organisation. Martin Bell was a very enjoyable and insightful companion to have on board the ship with us and brought events alive with his direct experiences of war. And yet explained to us that inevitably if, as a journalist, you are embedded with one group or army unit you gain depth of understanding of their situation at the expense of understanding their enemy, or maintaining a sense of the overall strategy or direction of the war in general.
In his preface to his classic book on the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace, the historian Alistair Horne writes of how complicated it is to reach any objective truth in a complex and long war, with multiple levels of action and no obvious single focus. A French premier had commented that “only an Englishman” could be adequately objective to see beyond personal perspectives of the Algerian War. In 1580 the French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne wrote that if humans so frequently lack self-knowledge, why should people consider our “facts” about the universe to be reliable?
Post-Communist Eastern Europe consists of many countries who experienced multiple events. Within those events are individual stories, emotions and beliefs about what happened. All perspectives add to the story and have a truth but as these perspectives can be contradictory the real truth of history can be illusory. Montaigne might argue that some humility about our ability to see and remember things clearly is a more realistic description of the fallible human mind. Can we personally be so sure that our own memories of a situation are totally accurate, I wonder?
And a poem inspired by our visit to Vukovar and Martin Bell’s lecture and video clips:
“All Wars are the Worst War” (Sergeant Andy Mason of the Desert Rats)*
The sniper dives behind a shattered door frame,
disappearing into long shadows of waiting.
Time travels both fast and slow
within the confines of his battle.
The windows of the nearby Hotel Dunav are being shot
window by window, floor by floor,
in the concrete Communist block skyscraper
towering over Vukovar’s harbour.
Houses stand bombed and broken.
A neighbourhood street where mothers had cooked,
children had played, grandparents visited,
now unrecognisable. A tumble of jagged bricks and breezeblock.
There’s nowhere to run. Every corner covered,
the wide wild fields of wheat booby-trapped with landmines.
He thinks he is fighting for justice, territory, belief.
He has not lived sufficient years to realize he’s a political pawn.
A mortar blasts and rocks his cover.
He ducks into darkness in the shelled ruin of a shop,
aims his gun into the gloom to discover a fighter
sheltering under the counter, teeth chattering, stupefied in terror.
Snipers firing, snipers being slaughtered, so many being maimed.
No orders reach them. Fear takes over.
Their young-man bravado seeps into the blackness of their hearts,
the futility of war murdering them both in its own way.
*From In Harm’s Way: Bosnia: A War Reporter’s Story by Martin Bell. See this and other poems on this link: