I wasn’t going to post on the blog this week – frankly, I’ve been flying all over the place on my book tour, so I arrived home today (Thursday) a bit tired. And thank you, all those of you who came to see me – it’s just so heartwarming meeting readers of my books and makes every airport security line worthwhile.
I have dragged myself to the computer because I’ve decided to share something weighing heavy on my heart.
You don’t have to be a person genuinely interested in global events to know that, of late, all the skirmishes around the world seem to be heating up as much as the climate (oh, I know there’s debate about the whole warming thing, but let’s save it for another time, when I don’t have to look at photos of polar bears languishing in water while searching for an icy safe haven). What with Hamas and Israel, with ISIS bearing down on Baghdad and Boko Haram terrorists in Africa – I mean, if you read the newspapers online or in print, the Taliban and Al Qa’ida are being superseded by even more menacing terrorists, and the IRA, ETA and goodness knows who else are positively ancient by now – the world is becoming an even scarier place. And now this – an airliner shot down over the Ukraine, possibly by Russian weaponry. Among the dead were Dutch, Australian, British, French, Malaysian, German and people of other nationalities. The world is in mourning.
I remember – I think it was last year sometime – reading an article drawing attention to the fact that every 100 years, in so-called civilized society, mankind faces a worldwide conflagration serious enough to consume societies across the globe. In short, a world war.
For whatever reason, I am deeply, deeply disturbed by war – not dates, not generals and their bravery or mistakes, not politicians and their wisdom, or lies and subterfuge seen in hindsight, but by the suffering of ordinary people. And here we are, on the cusp of the 100th anniversary of the start of the first major war of modern times, and look what is happening around us.
Winston Churchill said that the Great War 1914 – 1918 was the first war in which man realized he could obliterate himself completely (and do forgive the use of “he” and “man” – for all his eloquence, Churchill was as chauvinist as they come, and of course, that was the accepted form of speech in those times). But he had a point, and boy, do we know it today.
I do not have answers. I am not a political journalist with a point of view informed by being in close contact with people stationed in the higher echelons of power. Thank God. I am just an ordinary person and I am feeling a sense of déjà vu. I remember watching Ken Burns’ excellent documentary about the dust bowl, and gasping when that footage of a massive cloud of dust rolling in across the plains loomed large on the screen; dark, forbidding, as if the apocalypse had arrived. Today, when I heard the news about the Malaysian airliner being brought down over Ukraine, I felt as if I were out there in the middle of nowhere watching a black cloud bearing down.
London's Imperial War Museum has just opened its doors again following a major refit – just in time for commemorations to mark the outbreak of WW1 – the Great War. If you have never been, it is an amazing museum, housing not only exhibits on the trenches of that terrible war, but also twisted metal from the World Trade Center – as far as war goes, it covers all the bases. I have been there many times, my first visit at age seven. I have used the archives for research to bring color and depth to my writing. But there are two things I want to share here.
The first is a small exhibit I hope they have retained in this refurbishment – it’s an electronic world map, and at any time you can look at it and see red lights flashing to show countries currently at war. Visitors are always amazed at the number of red lights. I’d bet that screen is close to melting right now.
The second is part of the museum’s history. The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917, essentially as a depository for documents of national importance relating to the world war then in progress, and as a memorial to those who had died. It became a place where people could find out more about their loved ones who had perished. In 1936 the museum found its present home, in Kennington, south London. Those of you who have visited the Churchill rooms, the Imperial War Museum North, IWM Duxford (a former Royal Air Force station), and the ship HMS Belfast, will know that they are now all part of the same organization, and it’s big and awe inspiring – bringing home a crucial part of global social history to the general public; the history of war.
But here, to me, is the most interesting aspect of the museum’s history: The main IWM is housed in the remaining buildings of what was once the Bethlem Hospital for Lunatics. In the local dialect it was known as “Bedlam.” Now you recognize it, don’t you? The archives’ reading room is available for use only by appointment – I have worked there for several hours on different occasions – and is situated in what was once the chapel of the old asylum. It is a place where you cannot help but spend at least a few moments in silent reflection on mankind, madness and conflict, perhaps looking up at the plaque: Thou Shalt Not Kill.
I think there is something so appropriate in this part of the museum’s history, that a deep and broad recording of war should be housed in a place that once incarcerated those overcome by lunacy.
The Great War led to the end of the first great age of globalization. Eighteen million people (military and civilian) across the globe died. Millions upon millions were wounded, mentally and physically, and that wounding leeched into families for generations. If ever there was a time for both believers and non-believers of any stripe to fall to their knees, I think it might be upon us. Or it might all blow over, and – as my Dad used to say – “This time next year, we’ll be laughing.”
Make sure you have that laughter. Hold close those you love, and try not to fall out over the silly things. Who cares if it’s not your turn to load the dishwasher, walk the dog or clean up after someone else. Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you and yours are safe, that’s all that matters, really. I remember my mother scolding my brother and I when we were kids in the midst territorial spats. “Stop arguing,” she'd say. “It’s the little fights that grow big and start wars.”